Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty:
a case study on mythmaking and making history

by Robert Alpert

“You get your story and you hold onto it, and every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
—Laurie Anderson in Heart of a Dog (2015)

The mythology of Zero Dark Thirty

John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is among the most quoted movies in U.S. cinema for the generation of U.S. filmmakers who grew up in the aftermath of World War II, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. Its celebrated story tells of the pursuit by the obsessive and racist Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, of a group of Comanches who have destroyed the homestead of Edwards’ brother, Aaron (Walter Coy). Pursuing these Comanches both in order to wreak revenge for the rape and murder of his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), with whom Ethan has secretly been in love, and to rescue Martha’s abducted daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan is relentless. “We'll find 'em. Just as sure as the turnin' of the earth,” he tells Debbie’s adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who alone accompanies Ethan where others have given up. Martin knows that, in fact, Ethan intends to kill Debbie, now an adolescent living as the wife of “Scar” (Henry Brandon), the leader of the Comanches. Eventually finding Scar after a search of many years, Ethan scalps Scar whom Martin has already killed, and then sweeps the terrified Debbie into his arms, unexpectedly, telling her simply, “Let's go home, Debbie.” The film closes with the iconic image of Ethan reuniting Debbie with the Jorgensens, another American pioneering family, and the door closing on Ethan who remains outside their frontier home. While making possible American civilization in the wilderness that is the American West, Ethan Edwards condemns himself to continue to wander in that wilderness.

The leader of the Comanche band, Scar, blows his horn, initiating the slaughter. The next morning Ethan sees from afar the burning frontier home of his brother Aaron.
He sees inside that home the sexually violated body of Aaron’s wife, Martha, whom Ethan had secretly loved. Ethan embarks upon his quest for vengeance. In contrast to the fictional narrative of The Searchers, Zero Dark Thirty is nonfiction.
It, too, however, dramatizes a quest for vengeance. Over a black screen, we hear the recorded, last moment conversations of Americans killed on 9/11. Revenge for 9/11 begins with the CIA’s “Saudi Group.” CIA agents engage in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e. torture, in order to find and kill those responsible for 9/11.

Kathryn Bigelow is a U.S. filmmaker of genre movies, including movies about bikers (The Loveless), vampires (Near Dark), cops (Blue Steel), surfers (Point Break), submarines (K-19: The Widowmaker) and most recently war movies (The Hurt Locker). Like John Ford, who famously announced that he “makes Westerns,[1] [open notes in new window] she directs action movies in which she repeats generic plots and characters and in the process has acted as a cultural critic of the United States. Moreover, like many classic directors of Hollywood’s studio system, she has consistently worked with certain screenwriters, each of whom has influenced her movies. Thus, following her initial movie, The Loveless (1982), a slow moving biker movie that she co-directed with fellow Columbia Film School graduate Monty Montgomery, she worked with Eric Red on Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1990), her earliest and cleanest genre movies; with James Cameron on Point Break (1991)(with Cameron as producer) and Strange Days (1995), in which she developed further her theme of doppelgangers; and with Christopher Kyle on The Weight of Water (2000) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), more traditional, plot-driven movies that followed the commercial failure of the large-budgeted Strange Days.

Bigelow has worked with screenwriter Mark Boal on her two latest efforts, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Both are war movies that focus upon the U.S. engagement in the Middle East in response to 9/11. Both place the audience “in the middle of events” and “on the ground.”[2] Moreover, the mainstream media and the public have praised both movies, with The Hurt Locker receiving several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and with Zero Dark Thirty nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Zero Dark Thirty received an Academy Award, however, only for Best Achievement in Sound Editing —with the awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay going to another Middle East war drama, Argo (2012).[3] This slight is surely the result of the political controversy that surrounded the film’s release—its depiction of torture, the cooperation that Bigelow and Boal received from the U.S. government, namely the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense (DOD) and the White House (WH), and the movie’s initial release date that would have coincided with the U.S. presidential election between incumbent President Barack Obama and the former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

In depicting the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty reenacts Ford’s The Searchers.[4] Like the opening massacre of the Edwards homestead, Bigelow’s film begins with the depiction of 9/11 through a black screen over which we hear the recorded voices of those killed that day. The remainder of the movie follows the obsessive efforts over many years of a CIA intelligence analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), to find and kill bin Laden, the person responsible for 9/11, notwithstanding the skepticism and repeated refusal of most others at the CIA to support her efforts at finding him. Like Ford’s relentless Ethan, Maya is cold-blooded in her pursuit. Following the death of her friend Jessica (Jessica Ehle), a senior CIA analyst, from a suicide car bombing, she vows revenge, “I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill Osama bin Laden.” Recruited out of high school, she’s not just “fuckin’ smart”—“We’re all smart,” as the CIA Director (James Gandolfini)[5] casually says—but as her station chief in Pakistan Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) observes, “Washington says she's a killer.” Ironically, when Bradley later refuses to support her efforts, she publicly exposes his identity as her station chief, resulting his dismissal. Like Ethan Edwards, she’s implacable, insisting to the CIA Director and others that the chances are 100% that the person whom she’s identified and who is under surveillance at a compound in Abbottabad is, in fact, bin Laden.

In her pursuit of vengeance for 9/11, she, too, is relentless. Following a lead about the possible location of bin Laden, she now oversees the torture of a key “detainee.” Adding to her desire for vengeance is the suicide killing of her one friend at the CIA, a mother of three, as we learn only following her death. Maya vows that she’ll smoke everyone involved “in this op and then kill bin Laden.”
Instructed not to sit at the main conference table, she nevertheless informs the CIA director that she’s “the mother fucker” who located the compound where bin Laden may be residing. Maya’s insistence that’s there’s a 100% likelihood that she’s located bin Laden’s compound provides the necessary confidence to the Navy SEAL team that successfully raids the compound.

The ending of Zero Dark Thirty especially evokes The Searchers. Like the killing of Scar in The Searchers during the raid of the Comanche camp by the Texas Rangers, the killing of bin Laden by the U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 seems almost incidental.[6] Just as Martin kills Scar off-screen, the killing of bin Laden by one of the members of the Navy Seal Team can easily be missed. Bin Laden appears fleetingly in the confusion of the raid, and the shooting of him is sudden and barely noticeable in that confusion. The leader of the Navy Seals then announces to Maya the success of the raid by one word, “Geronimo,” and the movie’s focus remains upon Maya. Triumphantly identifying the dead body of bin Laden at a U.S. military camp as “agency expert” as well as implicit next of kin,[7] Maya is alone in the next scene, a small figure lost in the large cargo bay of a military transport plane. The plane’s pilot speaks the film’s last lines, observing,

“You must be pretty important. You gotta whole plane to yourself. Where you wanna go?”

Maya remains silent. Where the real Maya supposedly cried upon her identification of bin Laden’s body,[8] Maya in the movie only now cries. Her story a paean to individualism, she implicitly acknowledges that she, like Ethan Edwards, has no home but instead, having her wreaked vengeance, will continue to wander.[9]

Having agreed to return home with Martin, Debbie screams upon seeing Scar. Martin without pause repeatedly fires at and kills Scar.
Hearing Martin’s shots, the Texas Rangers raid the Comanche camp. Ethan later emerges from the tent with Scar’s scalp hanging from his hand. Vengeance is complete. Zero Dark Thirty: During the raid on bin Laden’s compound, a member of the SEAL team calls out bin Laden’s name. He then fires his weapon at a fleeting, unseen figure.
He informs the leader of the SEAL team that it’s a “possible jackpot,” firing repeatedly into the barely visible body now lying on the ground. A fleeting image of the man who shot bin Laden.
Following the SEAL team raid, Maya watches as the team rushes past her, carrying a body bag. Maya unzips the body bag and identifies the dead body as that of bin Laden. Vengeance is complete.

Zero Dark Thirty, of course, reverses the hero’s gender. The iconic John Wayne who played Ethan Edwards in The Searchers becomes in Zero Dark Thirty the semi-fictional character Maya played by Jessica Chastain. Bigelow, in fact, was clearly pleased in learning from the CIA during the production of Zero Dark Thirty that the CIA intelligence analyst primarily responsible for finding bin Laden was a woman. “Bigelow, the driven director who tells the story of the driven operative, says she felt as if she’d been dealt ‘a royal flush’ when they discovered a young woman at the center of the Osama hunt.”[10] Viewing Maya’s obsessiveness as evocative of the heroine of The Silence of the Lambs (1991),[11] Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty underscores how Maya is a woman in a world dominated by men and in the process reverses Hollywood’s gender clichés. She introduces Maya as a hooded figure in an interrogation scene in which a CIA intelligence officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), tortures (through “enhanced interrogation techniques”) a “detainee.” Only outside the cell does Maya remove her hood, revealing—unexpectedly for most audience members—that she is a woman. Dan later mocks the prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), with Maya’s presence and her gender. “You don't mind if my female colleague checks out your junk?” he asks, and then leaves Maya alone with him in the hopes that her gender will sway him to talk. “Please help me,” Ammar pleads. The consummate professional, she coolly replies, “You can help yourself by being truthful.”

Undoubtedly like Bigelow in Hollywood, Maya is well aware of the isolation resulting from her sex. Thus, at a high-level meeting at the CIA’s headquarters, she demonstrates that she can out macho these men, introducing herself to the CIA Director in the following exchange:

CIA Director: “And how close is it to the house?”
George (Mark Strong), a senior CIA Supervisor: “About a mile.”
Maya:Four thousand, two hundred, twenty-one feet. It's closer to eight-tenths of a mile.”
CIA Director: “Who are you?”
Maya: “I'm the motherfucker that found this place. Sir.”

Likewise, when the CIA must assess the chances of successfully finding bin Laden at the Abbottabad compound, she openly mocks this all-male group in the room:

“100% he's there. OK, 95%, 'cause I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it's 100.”

Notwithstanding, this symbolically progressive gender role-reversal, Maya retains the mythic role of the male John Wayne. That Maya, a woman, takes on the cultural identification of the male transposes our expectations. Nevertheless, the role retains the cultural characteristics of the iconic Wayne so that we adjust our expectations of gender accordingly. Maya’s success as a woman becomes subsumed within the political victory by the U.S. over its adversary, a culture no less barbaric than the Comanches whom Ethan Edwards defeated. Maya barely escapes the al-Qaeda gunmen who unexpectedly attack her while she is driving out of her residence early one morning in the same way that Ethan Edwards and the Texas Rangers barely escape the Comanches who ambush them on an open plain. Maya in Zero Dark Thirty simply assumes the mantle of the Western hero in America’s triumph over the events of 9/11. 

The Searchers: While pursuing the Comanches responsible for the slaughter of Ethan’s brother and family, Ethan and the others with him find themselves surrounded by that same band. They flee from the surrounding Comanches and ...
... seek refuge across a river. They escape, by successfully holding off the Comanches who try to cross the river.
Zero Dark Thirty: Having discovered a lead to bin Laden’s location, Maya exits one morning by car from her fortified residence in Pakistan. Terrorists fire upon her as she exits.
The glass to her windshield is bullet proof. Maya escapes, by reversing her car back into the residence where the security guard closes a solid metal gate behind her.

Making the mythology

Zero Dark Thirty updates The Searchers with the American West now coinciding with the U.S.’s global reach extending beyond its geographical borders. In the context of that global reach, it is not surprising that the U.S. government has a formal policy of assisting Hollywood filmmakers. Thus, the CIA maintains an “Entertainment Industry Liaison” whose goal is the “accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them." The CIA affirmatively encourages filmmakers, such as Bigelow, to work with it:

“If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development. That can mean answering questions, debunking myths, or arranging visits to the CIA to meet the people who know intelligence…”[12]

In the case of Zero Dark Thirty Mark Boal approached the CIA by emphasizing a desire for “accuracy and authenticity.”[13] The filmmakers would take an approach similar to that of their prior movie, the commercially and critically successful The Hurt Locker, where Boal had been embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, and his screenplay had resulted from that experience.

In that instance, the U.S. government had embedded journalists, including Boal, with U.S. troops in an effort to control the media portrayal of that war. In this instance, the U.S. government’s interest in Boal and Bigelow and its decision to grant them access to information, including access to the participants in the May 2, 2011 raid on bin Laden's compound, reflected its view of Bigelow as a director who would not only accurately document events but who would also—more importantly—authentically promote them through a uniquely American mythology.[14]

During the process of approving Boal and Bigelow, the DOD’s public relations officer in an email to the DOD’s Undersecretary[15] quoted an article in its entirety that had appeared in the Boston Review

“[T]he first account of Osama Bin Laden’s death was like the screenplay for a John Wayne movie… Old-fashioned justice was served, not the law on the books, but the law of the Western frontier that has long been cinema’s stock and trade. The villain dies with a gun in his hand, and the hero in the white hat, honest and honorable, overcomes impossible odds.”

While the writer of the article, Alan Stone, notes that later disclosures undermined that portrayal of the raid as “flawless,” his article nevertheless goes on to speculate:

“Which version of the story will take its place in popular history? No doubt Hollywood will have something to say about that.”  

The article finds unequivocal support in The Hurt Locker for the view that Bigelow would be uniquely positioned to portray the raid:   

The Hurt Locker thus begins as a story of ineptitude and futility. These are not invincible soldiers like John Wayne…. Sergeant James [however] leads these two men—one shaken and one broken. He is an existential antihero who believes in nothing but his project, like the doctor in Camus’s The Plague. ….

“He is one of those rare workmen who enjoys his craft above all else. …. And he is, as the anonymous critic would have it, heartbreakingly human.

“With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow shows a quality that many directors lack: compassion enough to make all her characters human. If any filmmaker is to tell the story of Bin Laden’s pursuit and killing, we would be fortunate that it be she. She might not vindicate your political sensibilities, but she will make it real.”[16]

Bigelow could portray the CIA’s search for bin Laden and the SEAL raid on his Abbottabad compound in the character of a John Wayne as the consummate professional, in other words, John Wayne as depicted not in a John Ford movie but John Wayne as the Howard Hawks hero in such movies as Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959).[17] The government’s working with Bigelow could result in the recreation of a John Wayne movie—updated so as to be “real” but in the process “political.”

Wanting to “‘put out [their] story’ to shape public and Congressional opinion,”[18] the CIA cooperated with and assisted Bigelow and Boal in making their movie.

“The Central Intelligence Agency arranged for the filmmakers to meet with four of its officers who played a role in planning the raid. A Department of Defense official offered to introduce them to a U.S. Navy SEAL who was also involved in the planning. The filmmakers were told the full name of the Navy SEAL, and the first names of the CIA officers.”[19]

The filmmakers also met with the highest levels of government at the DOD[20] as well as with officials at the WH.[21] In return, the filmmakers not only undertook to honor the government’s claims of confidentiality[22] but also acceded to change the movie as requested by the government.[23] In one instance in particular, the government acceded to the filmmakers’ request not to delete a scene—the scene in which Maya derives her intelligence from watching videotapes of CIA torture. Here the filmmakers convinced the government that including that scene would make the movie more cinematic. Ironically, the CIA told the filmmakers that there had been no such videotapes yet later admitted its destroying those videotapes, resulting in a bitter political controversy with the U.S. Congress. On the other hand, by granting the filmmakers’ access, the CIA facilitated a portrayal in Zero Dark Thirty of how the CIA had supposedly learned of bin Laden’s compound through “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a story later documented as false.[24] 

Following the movie’s release in December 2012, the CIA seemingly disassociated itself from the completed movie, commenting that the movie had falsely conveyed the impression that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” had played a “key” element in finding bin Laden.[25] Nevertheless, the government found in the filmmakers an effective means for selectively leaking information about past events and conveying those events in a fictional retelling of history consistent with American heroics.[26] Thus, while identifying three aspects in which the film “departs from reality,” the CIA’s “Statement to Employees” at the time of the film’s release iterates the government’s mythology, namely

“that the Bin Ladin operation was a landmark achievement by our country, by our military, by our Intelligence Community, and by our Agency.”[27]

Maya’s triumph through her obsessive gathering of intelligence, combined with the Seal team’s professional raid, reiterates that achievement on the screen complete with a Hollywood ending.

The filmmakers touted the U.S. government’s cooperation and the resulting supposed accuracy in the film’s opening credit:

“The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.”

While Boal has argued, in response to criticism about the movie’s accuracy, that the movie is a fictional portrayal, not a documentary,[28] Boal based his fictional characters on real people,[29] set out to produce “an accurate recreation of a historical event”[30] and has spoken at length about the accuracy of the film’s depiction of the compound and the raid on that compound.[31] Bigelow has likewise expressed her belief in the essential accuracy and authenticity of the movie, stating that the movie is a “first draft of history.”[32]  If, as she has noted,[33] 9/11 is the current generation’s JFK assassination, then she is new Oliver Stone, creating in Zero Dark Thirty a seeming equivalent of Platoon (1986), the depiction of an earlier U.S. generation’s trauma resulting from the war in Viet Nam.[34]

In addition to announcing that Zero Dark Thirty “is based on first hand accounts of actual events,” the movie continuously intersperses its dramatic events with exact dates ... ... as well as with the names of places where the reenactment of terrorist activities are depicted in the movie.
For example, many years after 9/11 ... ... a terrorist bomb is discovered and defused in NYC’s Times Square.
Close-ups highlight inconsequential objects, enhancing the sense that the movie is documenting authentic events. The movie fragments space, enhancing the “on the ground” feel of the movie’s reenactment of these historical events.