“The ZERO DARK THIRTY raid is not so much a payoff for the events that have been building onscreen, but is a masterstroke of fate.” – from Roger Ebert’s review of ZERO DARK THIRTY
As a member of the audience for Kathryn Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, you might be partial to dissecting the film on a human rights or political perspective. You can try to digest the torture scenes, but will likely end up clenching your arms around your torso in protest. You might growl at the deliberately misogynistic dialogues while empathizing with Maya as a stoic heroine. She is too often antagonized for being a proactive, strong woman, after all. You might scoff at some obscure historical inaccuracies, blatant hypocrisy, or roll your eyes at how some portion of the timeline has been glossed over. Either way, based on true facts, somewhere over the course of two and a half hours, you are appalled. Is it cathartic?
It appears that when one writes about Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THIRTY, that written piece will be articulated almost exclusively within a socio-political context. Fair enough, considering the nature of the film. ZERO DARK THIRTY is uniquely journalistic and “historically” heavy, it is almost impossible for it to escape such weighted and serious real world scrutiny. Thus, this is a very hard film to write about. Am I obligated to remark on the film’s political consequences, or place a ranking on how morally or immorally it presents torture culture? I may or may not have restless opinions about Bigelow’s responsibility as a filmmaker (not only is she a lady filmmaker, but she also makes a point to choose and comb through some controversial twenty-first century content.) Regardless, my examination of ZERO DARK THIRTY as a film hardly depends on a contextualized assessment of Bigelow herself.
Let us now return to the quote at the top, a quote that has definitely been taken out of context from Ebert’s dismal review of ZERO DARK THIRTY, in order to serve my analytical purposes. Strip down the film’s agenda, and what we’ve got left is a filmed narrative with an elegantly crafted structure and many subtle components. People seem to be so distracted by the film’s contentious content, they are either not interested or not impressed by the form. Believe it or not, Bigelow does some very interesting things with allegory and temporality—specifically, the notion of fate, which Ebert so stylishly, but ever so briefly, mentions in the quote above. His review never does delve into the concept, but I’d like to believe that the illustrious Roger Ebert is aware of the analysis I am about to discuss, and he just wasn’t particularly impressed by it. Why else would he describe the climax of the film as “a masterstroke of fate”? Fate is precisely what it was, and here’s why:
First and foremost, Bigelow incorporates some visual cues that are culturally and historically familiar representations of fate or fortune. There is a scene where some of Maya’s colleagues (including her only other female companion) are waiting at a remote base to receive information from a possible Al Qaeda courier. The courier drives up to the base and explodes as he gets out of his car. All of Maya’s colleagues are killed. In anticipation of this tragic ill-timed event, we see the courier’s van cruise up the driveway, and a black cat crosses the road in front of it. Black cats, of course, are popularly considered wicked or bad luck, especially if one crosses your path. A second example of Bigelow incorporating deterministic superstitions into the film is closer to the end. Maya receives arguably the most important phone call of her life, where her superior notifies her that the raid is happening that night. The scene that is happening in the background while she receives this phone call is of the Navy SEALs playing a game of horseshoes. Now, horseshoes are very common good-luck charms; these and the black cat are deliberate and intentional pieces of mise-en-scene. Their placements add a new depth of aesthetic and abstraction to the film. The raid was meant to happen. While the SEALs are playing horseshoes, little do they know they will be going on their mission in just a few hours, but it seems fortune is on their side.
This brings me to my next point, which is the fact that everyone—and I mean everyone—in the audience knows the ending. They’ve seen it on the news, they’ve seen it on the Internet…the whole film is structured as a countdown to Osama bin Laden’s fate at the hands of the United States Navy SEALs, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know it will come to fruition. If it didn’t, if Bigelow decided upon a twist ending where bin Laden survives, that would not just be any old fiction; it would be some disturbing close-to-accurate sci-fi parallel universe.
We have a psychologically complex protagonist by the name of Maya, whose penultimate goal from the very beginning is finding bin Laden. As we become familiar with her strengths and her sacrifices, culminating to the last shot of her breaking into tears on the airplane, we are convinced that this investigation was Maya’s purpose. Not just in the context of her career, but her purpose in life. Why else would she be so devastated and lost at the end? Why else would she never answer the question the pilot asks, “where do you want to go”? The prospect of making the choice where to go forward is shocking. Maya certainly expresses will throughout the film, but it was willing herself against obstacles of society, and it was still for a pre-determined goal.
But, all that said, we could look at it in two ways. Are Maya’s and bin Laden’s and everyone else’s past, present, and future trapped in the hands of fate, or is Maya herself—the strength of her actions and clout—what acts as the hand of fate?