Watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time, I was fully invested in the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. As a docudrama about one of the most formative events in our nation’s history, I was riveted. It was gripping.
And then, in the movie’s final moments, I realized it isn’t about that at all. It’s about one woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a character dancing between the lines of real and imagined. It’s about her drive to achieve her goal, her total devotion to her craft and her aimlessness upon realizing that she had finally achieved what she had spent her whole life doing. As she says to her boss over lunch when asked what else she’d worked on besides Bin Laden in her career at the CIA:
“I’ve done nothing else.”
Spoilers from here on out on both Zero Dark Thirty and “The Hurt Locker.”
The line almost feels comic when first delivered – Maya is portrayed as hellbent on her goal, and though effective, her methods sometimes trend toward the ridiculous. Of course she’s done nothing else! Then, in the final scene of the film, we see Maya shed tears when asked the one question – perhaps in her entire life – that she’s been unable to answer:
“Where do you want to go?”
Maya is a woman recruited right out of high school and trained her entire life for one goal: the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden. She has, quite literally, nothing else: no friends, no notable family, no goal. She’s a dog who has finally caught her tail: what now?
Chastain plays the final scene beautifully, almost gasping for breath through the tears, in utter disbelief that she’s reached this point in her life. It’s reminiscent of another scene in another Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal collaboration, The Hurt Locker.
Much like Maya in ZDT, the protagonist of The Hurt Locker is single-minded in his ambition and goals. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is an adrenaline addict who is the best at what he does: deactivating live bombs. The most intense situations don’t faze him. But a simple trip to the grocery store after returning home to his wife and child perplexes him. He can’t handle being bored, and ordinary life bores him. So he reenlists so he can continue his live-wire work.
Maya and James are both fascinating characters not despite what we don’t know about them, but because of it. We don’t learn about James’ family until the very end of the film, but we’re never given more information about him than is necessary. Maya is a total blank slate, to the point where she appears to be nothing but a cipher for the film’s plot. Then, of course, you realize exactly how pertinent she’s been the whole time.
Bigelow and Boal are an interesting partnership, because they work on a similar wavelength. Both like logical, journalistic story settings, but both appreciate having a flesh-and-blood, relatable character at the center. Both embrace the best parts of docudrama while avoiding creating unemotional works. And both appreciate a tough-to-love character that is nonetheless utterly fascinating. It’s no wonder their collaborations have been so successful – and why Maya and James are so similar.
The two protagonists have much in common, and even their differences are telling – especially Maya’s lack of roots versus James’ family at home. At the end of the day, James would envy Maya; a rootless existence filled with nothing but dismantling bombs is his paradise. Similarly, Maya would prefer a world where she could chase Osama Bin Laden forever. Ultimately, however, James can reenlist, but Osama is dead, and Maya is left without any hope, completely unprepared for the world she hasn’t truly been in since high school.
Maya and James feel like spiritual twins, partners who might realize that they aren’t alone when recognizing their own traits in the other. Most importantly, they are the passionately beating hearts at the center of their films. Without those hearts, despite Bigelow and Boal’s best efforts, I think the films would have been so much less than they are. It’s easy to hope that Maya and James might be revisited in a future work, but I think I prefer my understanding of them still incomplete. It’s not what we know that’s most fascinating, after all – it’s what comes after.