Questions In the Night: The Crises of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker
With Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP on January 21, 2013

The following article from Sr. Rose Pacatte details the similarities between Zero Dark Thirty and Bigelow and Boal's earlier film, The Hurt Locker, as well as the ministerial needs of veterans like the protagonists of each of those films. This article contains SPOILERS for both films. ~ Editor

In the months and years following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC and the crash of the fourth plane into a field in Pennsylvania, the CIA pursued Osama Bin Laden, the founder of the global terrorist network al-Qaeda who claimed responsibility for the events of September 11, 2001.

At a secret “black site” an agent, Dan, interrogates a man named Ammar (Reda Kateb) suspected of having knowledge about Bin Laden and his network. A CIA analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), watches as Dan (Jason Clarke) uses enhanced techniques to obtain information about links to Saudi terrorists. Ammar finally divulges the name of a courier to Bin Laden and other detainees corroborate the information. This leads to another man that Maya tracks for five years from her post in Islamabad, Pakistan. Following a lead, a team of CIA analysts arranges to meet an al-Qaeda insider, but is wiped out at Camp Campbell in Afghanistan while waiting to meet the contact. Maya is at lunch at the Marriott in Islamabad when a bomb goes off, and survives an assassination attempt as she is driving from her apartment. 

By chance, another analyst finds something in a file that was closed years before. This leads Maya to identify a man who then unknowingly takes the CIA to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Maya is convinced this is Bin Laden’s hideout.

Back in Washington, DC, Maya has to prod her colleagues and superiors for weeks before the director (James Gandolfini) and his advisors decide to trust Maya’s analysis and make recommendations to the White House.

Director Kathryn Bigelow explains that Zero Dark Thirty “is a military term for 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.” The narrative covers more than ten years in the search for Bin Laden and writer Mark Boal, who along with Bigelow won Oscars for their 2009 film The Hurt Locker.

The Hurt Locker starts out with a statement: war is a drug. The film is fictional but is based on writer Mark Boal’s time as a journalist embedded with a bomb unit. The Hurt Locker follows  members of an elite bomb squad as they diffuse obvious bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The men have to learn to trust each other but Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is a hot shot and takes unbelievable risks even though he has a wife and child at home. 

A “hurt locker” is the place where soldiers “put” their fear and the psychic damage of war rather than dealing with it, or, one hopes, while they wait for a time to deal with it. As Sgt. James explains, the box is “full of the stuff that tried to kill me.”

The defining moment in The Hurt Locker is not James’ admission here, however. It is at the end of the film when James is at home and grocery shopping with his wife, Connie (Evangeline Lilly) and their child. She sends him to get cereal and James is overcome with the banality of the choices of life at home when he sees the varieties of cereals before him. It is this moment of realization that life at home is meaningless to him. But James is addicted to war regardless if it is a just war or not. He is unable to discern between the importance and meaning of his family over something as trivial as dozens of brands of cereal that have nothing to do with the war machine he has become. 

What James does not realize, however, but the audience can, is that war, especially a war of choice rather than necessity, is just as nihilistic as breakfast cereal. Still, this existential moment might lead James to this understanding if detonating IEDs doesn’t kill him first.

The push back and uproar by the U.S. senators over Bigelow’s depiction of the use of torture to obtain information about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty misses the broader point of the movie, I think.  For ten long years the United States pursued Bin Laden. We know the U.S. has used torture to obtain information and whether or not this depiction is realistic, I don’t know. Bigelow and Boal say it is. But the bigger question is why the U.S. took this long, sure, but more importantly, why use very means available, even dark, illicit means, to do this at all? At the end of the day, what did it mean to pursue and kill Osama Bin Laden? And after ten years, so what?

Maya’s silent deflation at the end seems to reflect inner anguish.  She has never done anything else in her life after high school but become a CIA analyst and hunt down Bin Laden. What does she have and who is she now? What is her identity after participating in torture to then kill a man in revenge?

Revenge may be "a dish best served cold," but its consequences leave the soul vacant, especially if less than human means were used to plan that act of revenge.

Both Sgt. James and Maya are the by-products of war, and the filmmakers, through their stories, both fictional and based-on-fact, put forward those deep questions about meaning that ought wake us up in the middle of the night.

Samuel G. Friedman, religion columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote “Tending to Veterans Affliction of Soul” about “moral injury” as a result of war and “soul repair” efforts being carried out by Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock (co-author with Gabriella Lettini of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War). She and her colleagues at a center in Texas are working to provide spiritual healing for those whose moral integrity suffered while in combat. 

“Soul recovery” seems to be where Bigelow and Boal are leading us. This pastoral ministry sounds like a good idea for James and Maya and all those who might experience the same existential burdens when it’s all over, and they ask in the darkness of the night, “Why?”

Sr. Rose Pacatte is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. She writes broadly about all things related to today's media. You can find her work at the following places: St. Anthony Messenger and Sister Rose at the Movies. You may also follow her via Facebook.

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