Zero Dark Thirty is a love story about a woman who finds a man and loses herself in the process. Never mind that the woman in question, Maya, is a CIA analyst or that the man she is after is Osama Bin Laden. This is at its core a tale of one devoted inextricably to another, come what may. Maya gives herself for Bin Laden, and by the end when Bin Laden is dead, nothing of Maya remains.
Because Maya and the nation she symbolizes, the United States, are motivated not by self-giving charity but by self-preserving fear, perhaps Zero Dark Thirty would better be called a love story in negative exposure, like a photograph with reversed colors so that what’s really white is black and vice versa, a story of love’s increasing absence.
If “perfect love drives out fear,” than as fear is welcomed in, love fades away. Fear is love’s exclusion. If love “builds up,” then in its absence, we degrade. In a love story, people become more than they are at the beginning, more loving, more perfect, more human. Zero Dark Thirty then is a negative love story, a fear story. We chose fear over love to the hazard of our humanity, to the hazard of our souls.
Zero Dark Thirty begins in darkness and fear with sounds of terrified people during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Then it cuts to the torture of an al Qaeda financier by an American CIA agent. Enter Maya. At first she is disturbed by the torture and actively, if discreetly, tries to stop it in favor of more compassionate interrogation tactics. This act of compassion yields her big lead, the one that eventually exposes the location of Osama Bin Laden.
Along the way, as bureaucracy opposes her ambition, as the continuing war robs her of friends, and as further violence bolsters her fear, that compassion drains from her. She isolates herself from others and regresses into herself, embittering herself against everyone in her search for a man she ceases to call by name, opting for an acronym (“UBL”) instead. As she begins to treat all others as obstacles and objects and ceases to treat them as humans, she loses her own humanity as well.
Zero Dark Thirty is so gripping not because of its framework – the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. We know how that story progresses and ends. Zero Dark Thirty is gripping because it is the story of a woman losing herself to that quest. Fear wins in this film, because it claims Maya’s life.
Alongside The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is director Katheryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s second film about the effects of the war on terror on individuals and, by extension, on everyone engaged in this war, you and me included. In both films, the protagonist gives her or himself fully to her or his intended conquest and eventually can do nothing but battle. The war never ends, and it ultimately claims all lives.
These films expose so well the tragic paradox of a war on terror – we cannot cast out fear by instilling it. Only perfect love drives out fear. Compared to the prospect of losing one’s soul, all goals, even the goal of finding Osama Bin Laden, are small. When we chose fear over love, we lose even if we accomplish our mission.