“It’s Biology”: Zero Dark Thirty and the Politics of the Body

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Lindsay Jensen is a Toronto-based researcher and writer who focuses on food and film.

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Zero Dark Thirty
Image credit: Alliance Films

“In the end everyone breaks, bro. It’s biology.”

Billing itself as “The Greatest Manhunt in History,” and similarly described by its director as a “first draft of history,” Zero Dark Thirty is a film that asks to be viewed as an impartial, reliable document of historical events—there is little room for the frivolities of fiction and culturally mediated entertainment. Yet in its depiction of “truth,” the narrative reveals its shortcomings and demonstrates itself to be a highly politicized film as understood through its depictions of bodies: the body in pain and in crisis (that of the torture victim Ammar [Reda Kateb]) and the body out of place (that of our Western protagonist, Maya [Jessica Chastain]). Together, and along with the other bodies that play crucial and politically defined roles in Zero Dark Thirty, these subjects represent a synthesizing of politics through corporeality.

Opening in the years following 9/11, the film depicts the dogged, single-minded obsession of a young CIA analyst with finding Osama bin Laden, beginning with her first foray into fieldwork in Pakistan. At the outset of Zero Dark Thirty’s literal body politic is Ammar, the subject of both the film’s opening torture sequence and the controversy surrounding it. Ammar is introduced to the audience already filthy, already broken, already bloody. There is no process of dehumanizing Ammar for the audience, because he is already there (or, actually, not). His body is understood by his torturers—frat-boy-with-a-PhD Dan (Jason Clarke) and protagonist Maya— and by extension by the film itself, as the potential of information; he is less a human being than a repository of the “truth,” to be mined and exploited. Ammar’s torture is performed by Dan, Maya, and their faceless thugs in the search for Truth—not a subjective truth, but an objective, singular, ultimate, capital “T” Truth. As Dan reminds Ammar, “partial information will be treated as a lie.” Ammar’s body is understood by his captors to be a problematic obstacle to normalcy and order, which they must overcome. In this sense, the torture (or “Enhanced Interrogation”) amounts to a kind of organ transplantation. Information is removed—through no less bloody and visceral means than surgery—for use and abuse in the Western world.

In an interview with Vulture magazine, Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal emphasized his attempts to express the “brutality and inhumanity of the situation” when writing the opening torture sequence. But interestingly, a closer look at the scanned pages of his script reveals another emphasis. Upon the reveal of Maya’s face from behind the anonymity of a black ski mask after the first round of torture she witnesses, Boal describes her as such: “She has a pale, milky innocence and bright blue eyes, thin and somewhat frail looking, yet possessing a steely core that we will come to realize is off-the-charts.” With this description, he efficiently mounts the film’s conflict as reliant on an age-old counterpart to the dark, foreboding evils of the world: the beautiful, doe-eyed white woman. The trope may have been updated to provide her with a keen intellect and the power provided by her career, but the stark words of Boal’s script shows that Maya’s “milky innocence” takes precedence over these elements and in fact alters their impact. Maya is explicitly coded throughout the film as white, and her whiteness is explicitly drawn as a comparative against the brown bodies surrounding her. She is posited as more enlightened and free. Her brashness, which seems to reveal itself only at convenient times (she declares to the director of the CIA “I’m the motherfucker who found this place,” yet doesn’t say a word when she is visibly shaken by witnessing her first acts of torture), is represented as explicitly different from the bodies surrounding her in Pakistan.

In one telling scene, Maya returns to her heavily-guarded expat compound in Karachi from an evening out shopping. She enters wearing a niqab, which she immediately peels off, marking her apart from those who wear niqab throughout their day-to-day lives (the implication being that she is not burdened by the illusory repressiveness of such garments). The camera lingers on elements meant to differentiate her from other Pakistani women: she cracks open a can of Red Bull and drops her Chuck Taylor-clad feet on the coffee table—as if there are no sneaker-wearing, Red Bull-drinking women to be found elsewhere in Pakistan.

The body politics of the film rely on a similar dichotomy of familiarity vs. otherness throughout. While stationed in Pakistan, Maya undertakes her hunt for bin Laden by first combing through “Enhanced Interrogation” footage. Stacks and stacks of DVDs are shown, each documenting hours of physical abuse of men whose suffering is reduced to binary code. And yet, it is Maya who grows tired, Maya whose weary face we are shown in repeated close up to elicit empathy. The white female body becomes the space for the viewer to connect emotionally to the film, while the brown broken bodies being mined for information are mediated through layers of pixelated screens, their meaning stripped. Earlier in the film, Dan offers Maya the opportunity to observe acts of torture on a closed-circuit screen, stating gently that “there’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.” In this case, perhaps there is.

The CIA “blacksites” in which these interrogations take place function as synecdochical spaces, representative of American political power as a whole. The film opens on such a blacksite in Pakistan, and Maya visits several others in the hunt for her White Whale—in Poland, in Saudi Arabia, and back again to Pakistan. A world already shrunken by the reach of the CIA and its technologies finds its meridian in these blacksites—locations where the world shrinks so small that it seemingly disappears entirely. They are neither here nor there, are representative of no place, home to zero laws or regulations.  This disappearing is highlighted in the events enacted against Ammar. While later in the film it is understood that the “Enhanced Interrogation” program has been terminated by the government, it is nonetheless in full effect during the film’s first act. It is under this program that Maya and Dan are able to use Ammar’s presence in the Pakistani blacksite to their advantage. After days of unending torture, they manage to extract information from him during a moment of insincere compassion (hummus, cigarettes, and a kind word offered to mask the recent inhumanities).

This is a moment free of torture, but one that is emphatically informed and influenced by the previous torture. As Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, “for the prisoner, the sheer, simple, overwhelming fact of his agony will make neutral and invisible the significance of any question as well as the significance of the world to which the question refers. Intense pain is world-destroying.” Having lost track of time, space, and even what he has or hasn’t said to his torturers, Ammar is confused and easily manipulated. Maya and Dan handily convince him that he has in fact already ‘turned’ by revealing important knowledge about an attack. This new information can only be gleaned during a moment of calm because Ammar’s world has already dissolved.

Maya’s body, in comparison, moves through an accessible, clear and lucid world. While her office is presented as cramped and dingy, she is tellingly depicted several times in the jarringly open, airy spaces of CIA blacksites and military bases. These spaces are all sprawl: low buildings, far enough apart from each other to allow the searing sun to beat down and the desert wind to dramatically tousle Maya’s hair. Blacksites and bases are ambiguous and liminal, yet, they are, unquestionably, sites of power and authority. Be it blacksites or other militarized spaces, mobile tracking units and helicopters, or even bin Laden’s compound, the West reaches any space where their familiar bodies exert control and identify otherness. Visibility is key in this regard. The hooded figures peppering the pens at blacksites are forgotten bodies, hidden from the world. They are not unlike Ammar, who, having served his purpose, is dropped entirely from the film’s narrative—replaced by a seemingly endless string of men detained and tortured by Maya and her colleagues—and relegated to a realm of invisibility. These hooded figures are present in the same spaces as Maya but are worlds apart, enclosed in outdoor pens or labyrinthine barn-like structures whose particleboard suggests temporariness, yet belies a silent permanency. During Ammar’s “Enhanced Interrogation,” Maya only shows her face after being assured by Dan that her anonymity will remain intact.

Maya: “Is he ever getting out?”

Dan: “Never.” 

The film opens its final act, where in the sequence depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound Bigelow and Boal come closest to making an interesting, critical statement about their subject matter. Lasting almost thirty minutes, the raid passes in real time. Punctuated by periods of silence and inactivity, the brutal, bloody sequence demonstrates the degree to which geo-political violence has been rendered almost mundane. Yet any brush with critical engagement is immediately dismissed by the film’s final scenes. The SEAL team sent in to kill bin Laden are also explicitly instructed to detail, document, and transport materials from the compound, along with his body. Bin Laden’s corporeal remains signify many things—the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent War on Terror, etc.—but Zero Dark Thirty depicts his body, like Ammar’s, as primarily a source of information. The body is unloaded and organized alongside the rest of the documents and materials transported from the compound, in a scene that culminates with Maya making the final confirmation of its identity. But most tellingly, the film’s final image depicts Maya—sitting alone on an airplane triumphant in her goal, but seemingly empty and lost—with tears streaming down her face. Just as Ammar is considered by his captors as less a human than a repository of potential information, so is Maya drawn by Bigelow and Boal as less a character than a vessel through which to depict the West.

In a piece for Salon.com, Andrew O’Hehir asks of his readers: “does a society that produces female CIA agents (and reelects a black president) gain the right to commit atrocities in its own defence? Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist?” Translating acts of violence perpetrated on bodies around the world as an act of empowerment and emancipation for Western women is a near-pathological misreading of female agency, but one that is not altogether different from Zero Dark Thirty’s worldview. In an interview with the same website, Boal specifically noted the importance of Maya’s status as a “liberated, Western woman” to the narrative. By leaning on the physical elements highlighted by Boal in Maya’s introduction, Zero Dark Thirty imbues its final shot with their loaded connotations, and ties the War on Terror to a “milky innocence.” In a failed effort to evoke some sort of morally praiseworthy ambiguity, the film instead reduces the complexity of a decades-long international conflict into white woman’s tears.


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