No Ruth My Love in Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and star Jessica Chastain hold a mirror up to the manhunt for Bin Laden in ZERO DARK THIRTY.

America’s grand dame of literature, Toni Morrison, has given us many haunting words…but none have echoed in my mind more than the ones from A Mercy when a young girl who has lived through a colonial hellscape in 17th century Virginia announces to the world that she is, “In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?”

I’d like to think that former art student and painter Kathryn Bigelow has read Morrison, but who knows?  That’s the beauty of connecting one piece of art to another.  Morrison’s words came to clear mind while watching Bigelow’s tightly wound dramatization of events more recent – the man hunt for Osama Bin Laden – in Zero Dark Thirty.  How does one fight against terrorist enemies who are willing to kill anyone (including themselves) to achieve their mission?  Well, the answer is painfully simple.  You show them no ruth.  No mercy.  And you hunt them down by any means necessary and kill them. 

At the center of Bigelow’s film is one of filmdom’s greatest female characters of all time (all the more powerful for having been based on a real-life CIA analyst still working in the field), an agent named Maya played with calculated precision by Jessica Chastain (the doe-eyed red-head, all awkward coils that are both sinewy and frail, and with a soft voice that hides her steely demeanor beneath) who announces her talents to the world with this role much in the way that Cate Blanchett first staked her claim as the Queen in Elizabeth.  Here we see Maya’s journey over ten years from wunderkind analyst to ruthless field operative.  She takes awhile to find her voice, fumbling nervously through early enhanced interrogations, but once she finds that voice, she gives hell to anyone who stands in her way.  Her goal is unshakable, and her commitment is in full.  She is unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  And if she has to raise her voice, as she does to her station chief in Pakistan in the later portion of the film, you will hear her.

Mark Boal’s cold and journalistic script opens with a surprisingly emotional soundbite montage of the events of 9/11 done against a black screen, and then presents the manhunt for Bin Laden in chapters as we watch Maya’s growing obsession with a secret courier she believes will lead to the ultimate target.  There are plenty of supporting characters, all well-played, and showing the team effort, but the story is ostensibly Maya’s and in her, director Bigelow finds a kindred spirit.  Like many films of today, Zero Dark Thirty, has an unwieldy run-time, and there were plenty of scenes that could’ve been trimmed in the editing room without removing the impact.  There were also too many macho white guys with beards to keep track of.  There were confusing points where I honestly didn’t know who was who.

Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding the torture scenes seems grotesquely political.  The film takes no stance one way or the other.  The torture scenes must be discussed within the context of the other ways in which the CIA obtained information.  There were also more civilized interrogation techniques (like stone-cold bribery) profiled in the film.  Boal and Bigelow clearly wanted to show how the CIA was at times willing to use “any means necessary” and that no matter what path they went down, nothing was successful 100% of the time, and the extremely frustrating nature of living in a volatile world like that trying to perform a job that is supposed to lead to justice served.

Justice, of course, is dispensed thanks to Seal Team 6, whose daring nighttime raid is played out in virtual real-time over the film’s closing arc.  It was a jarring, tastefully done sequence, showing that while at times there was chaos and not everything went right (I had forgotten about the downed chopper), the team never panicked.  Never lost focus.  Like Maya, whose intelligence lead to the executive order to send them in, Seal Team 6 were consummate professionals who gave their all to complete the mission.

Yet…there was something almost anti cathartic about watching the film.  After all, Al Qaeda is still operational.  Terrorism seemingly will always exist; as the film points out our enemies are ready to wage this war for a hundred years…or more.  Zero Dark Thirty is based on events so recent, it’s almost as if through the film we are still in the moment.  Bigelow spares us none.  But it’s hard to judge the film’s lasting impact as art.  Will we be watching this twenty years from now?  What will this film tell future generations?

Bin Laden deserved to die.  And we got him.  But as the closing shot of Chastain’s Maya alone and showing the first bit of real emotion tells us, there’s never any rest for the weary.  As Toni Morrison might describe it, the soles of her feet are as hard as cypress.  But success has always come to those who move their feet.

Written by David H. Schleicher



  1. “The film takes no stance one way or the other. ”
    Ah! This being a sensitive subject, that was my guess as well but I’ll reserve my opinion after I watch it.

    Also, from the promos/trailers it seems like ZDT treads the middle path (I might be wrong again though): neither does it treat the subject too intimately nor does it go the “Argo” way and make it a gripping, thrilling tale. Instead it seems more like the journey of Maya, set amidst the Bin Laden operation.

    • Prakash – people can read into the film whatever the want, but I found it coldly a-political. It was more about Maya’s journey and obsession, and if it made any statement, it was that this was a justified manhunt powered by impassioned and dedicated professionals. The opening and closing moments are the film’s most powerful, and it’s a clear reminder of why we did what we did.

  2. To compare this character development to Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” is a very bold statement! You convinced me to see it based on that alone.
    I’m more interested in Bigelow’s ability to recreate the tension like she built in the sniper scene of the “Hurt Locker”. I swear I held my breath through that entire sequence when I first saw it. I don’t recall any soundtrack other than wind and faint bells but the camera movement definitely created a tense atmosphere. Please tell me she continued that in this movie.

    • Boz – a lot of strange things came to mind while watching this fascinating film…including but not limited to Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Toni Morrison’s writing. Bigelow films this in a complimentary style to The Hurt Locker – though I don’t think there is anything quite like the sniper scene as that had such an element of surprise. The tension in the raid scene is intense though, and even more impressive because we know what happens – but not necessarily the blow-by-blow. Really great stuff.

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