Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Someday my Prince will come ..." - A Cockamamie Theory About Zero Dark Thirty

Since writing my last post about talking about Zero Dark Thirty, I finally saw the film in question and found myself agreeing with a lot that I'd read before about what the movie has to say about torture -- even the comments that contradicted each other.  But I'm not going to delve into that here, given that others have said better and with more authority anything that I could add to the discussion.  (Those looking for more on the torture debate can go here, here, here, here, here, or here.)

I also found myself agreeing with those who found the main character, Maya, too oblique a character to establish any strong connection with the audience.  That is, until I had a thought about two-thirds of the way through the film that led me to put together one crazy, cockamamie theory about this movie, which I will explain below ....


So the thought I had as I was trying to figure out just why I found the Maya character so unaffecting was this: "Would I be questioning this character's motivations if she were a he?"  That is, if instead of Maya it had been Michael, would I have just accepted the character's gruff determination and bravado to capture Bin Laden as a natural expression of male tendencies rather than a character trait that demanded some kind of explanation?
Perhaps, but this initial thought led to another thought during the scene in which Maya frantically texts ANother female interrogator (Jessica) as she's waiting for a purported Al Qaeda informant -- the doctor who supposedly treated Bin Laden -- to arrive for their ill-fated meeting.  Jessica was so excited that she baked a cake to greet her man, while Maya, who had so far barely expressed a registrable emotion, is suddenly giddy like a school girl, texting "Cool!" as her female copatriot sees her suitor pull up to meet her ...

... and, there it is.  Her suitor.  It struck me in this moment that, right up until the "doctor" exits the vehicle and sets off the explosion, the scene had been played like a romantic comedy.  Thus, my next thought, "What if this is all really Bigelow's hyper-masculine, militaristic take on a romantic comedy?"

From that moment forward, I kept looking and -- I'd argue --  kept finding hints from the movie to support this notion.  Maya, though tough as nails (indeed, up until we meet SEAL Team Six, she's clearly got bigger balls than any other character in the movie), is also a woman-in-waiting.  "Recruited" by the CIA out of high school like a debutante acquired from her parents, Maya is thrown into adulthood with the singular mission to locate one man.  And until she does, she is trapped behind guarded walls with the threat of death if she dare tries to step outside.  (There are two scenes that come to mind when Maya is shown either outside or attempting to leave the borders of a U.S. military compound, and both times -- meeting a friend for lunch at the Marriott Hotel and her attempt to leave her driveway in her car -- nearly result in her death.)

As a result, Maya barely has a life of her own to speak of.  She cannot identify any friends when asked, and she never speaks of anything but her job.  In fact, she even admonishes the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he asks her why she's involved in the hunt for Bin Laden, telling him that she's not supposed to talk about her past - about why she was chosen for this job.  She is, in this sense, as vapid and thinly written as any Disney princess.

"A Disney princess, of course!"  And with that thought, the final pieces fell into place.  Maya has no more character motivation than a fairy tale character.  Rather, her raison d'ĂȘtre is dictated by destiny, by forces essentially beyond her control.  She is not a character so much as a plot device in that respect, in the same vein as Snow White or (more likely, given her hyper-masculinity) the Prince destined to locate and identify Snow White lying in a comatose state resembling death.  Maya's final mission has much in common with a fairy tale prince:  She must scale the impenetrable fortress where Usama is being held and bring this prize back from the forbidden lands to restore peace to her home country.  And who is sent to that castle/fortress to fulfill Maya's destiny?  Two helicopters codenamed "Prince".  (Yes, I recognize that is because the movie is based on real life, but it was unavoidably Bigelow's decision to highlight that fact through the dialogue.) 

Viewed through this lens, the final scene of Maya opening the body bag, bending over and putting herself mere inches away from the face of Bin Laden is the modern, militaristic equivalent of the Prince kissing Snow White back to life (subverted in this respect to represent the confirmation of death, supposedly for the sake of putting to the rest the memories of those who died on 9/11).  And with Maya's destiny fulfilled, she's flown away, alone in the back of a giant cargo plane, coming to life for the first time as a fully awake, fully formed human being.  Her tears are those of release from the curse that had been hoisted upon her like a poison apple, like the prick of a spinning wheel.

So, some cockamamie theory, right?  Right?

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