When I saw the World Trade Center towers collapse I had no initial response. I simply could not fathom that thousands of Americans had just been murdered.
The following day, as I watched news footage showing clouds of cement dust wash over city blocks, I was enraged. The focus of my own thoughts had been captured in the white chalk scrawling on the rusty bumper of a truck, “revenge”.
But America’s response was found with the firefighters, the paramedics, the police officers and others who sorted through the rubble, who had rushed into those towers while they were still standing and gave their lives in the effort to save others’.
When I saw this response, such poise amid catastrophe, I prayed God for that kind of strength.
It is in America’s soldiers that I see such strength. And so, I looked for the soldiers’ side of the story when I read the movie’s tagline, “the greatest manhunt in history”. But this story is told from the perspective of an investigator, Maya and her team. There’s plenty of tension and there is action (toward the end), but this story deals with all the meticulous work behind putting the S.E.A.L. team in place. Rest assured, our heroin is not the computer nerd you might be imagining, but a force to be reckoned with.
If the C.I.A. is telling you that you need to take a break from your manhunt because of the obvious signs of exhaustion, you know you’re determined.
Jessica Chastain is fabulous in this movie. As Maya, Chastain wears the battle-wearied visage so well I think she may have just walked off the set of “Mama“, skipped a few meals and started right in with Zero Dark Thirty.
But the real evidence of fatigue is in the agony thinly veiled behind her eyes, every bit as haunting as they are determined.
Maya slaves over countless reports and video recordings, even bullies her supervisors to get results. She compartmentalizes her pain. Maya is the picture of conviction, bordering on obsession. Zero Dark Thirty has its heart in the dissonance endured by the people charged with the task of intelligence-gathering, who suffer the anguish of a job that holds in its balance the innocent lives they mean to protect and their own moral compass.
We see Maya’s horror and restraint as she watches her mentor, Dan (Jason Clarke) dehumanize a terrorist. That might read like a contradiction in terms, but as Dan has to make a human connection with the terrorist he’s interrogating, the real conflict found in the film is the internal kind.
The damage dealt to Maya in her relentless manhunt becomes such a burden, she is in danger of losing herself. Doubt is a plague that has lingered for a decade, and she becomes immersed in it.
While water-boarding and other such methods haunt Maya and her only distraction is to delve even more deeply into her work, I wonder what possible motive could survive all this. Is it Revenge?
America did unite in celebration when Osama Bin Laden was killed, but it wasn’t only because he was dead, it was also because America had once again proven its resolve to overcome evil. Many argue that we fought evil with evil, that America had lost itself.
The proof we have not, I believe, rests with the greater commitment to the life that goes on after the manhunt.
Lingering time cruelly drawn out with uncertainty, suffering in silence the many lives lost to war is a test to be sure. Tenacity may be best proven in such a long wait, such a deeply-held breath waiting to subside with the relief of victory. And we do see that relief finally in Maya’s tears at the end. Relentless as she was in her manhunt, she begins to heal because her life’s purpose did not end with the death of her enemy.
Revenge has no such spirit. Even if it succeeds in its plight, the moment revenge is fulfilled its pursuer is also undone, having fully realized his potential.
Consider the enemy’s view of victory: he hopes to die, and to end lives is the utmost of his resolve.
Our soldiers fight and lay down their lives because their utmost is to ensure the lives of others, they fight with the courage to hope, to one day heal and return home, to resume the life waiting for them, one outside of war.
Our soldiers must fear death, but it isn’t courage that has our enemy detonating himself, is it?
That our soldiers fight for the sake of their brothers and our freedom is the proof of purpose, not revenge. Because as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”