NOTE: I spent many hours taking notes, scene-by-scene on the Movie, Zero Dark Thirty. In red, I’ve written in commentary along the way.
This is meant as one resource for a future think piece on “history” versus “drama” in motion pictures and theater alike; and also for a piece of the risks of too-hasty criticism of either–when driven by punditry, rather than by thoughtful viewing and critical thinking.
PROLOGUE: Multiple soundbite/recordings of the 9-11 attacks over a black screen.
SCENE 1: (2:15) “2 Years Later” “The Saudi Group” Agents torturing a man who has obviously been beaten previously. Threats. “Dan” is the chief interrogator. He yells, “Look at me, Amar. If you lie to me, I’m gonna hurt you.”
They tie Amar into a standing stress position and leave. “Nobody talks to him,” Dan says. One hooded observer turns out to be a woman: Maya. She’s brand new–Dan finds her presence amusing. “Let’s get a coffee,” Dan says. But Maya says, “No we should go back in.” (Plainly wanting to keep up the intensity of the interrogation.) Dan says, “There’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.” But they go back in.
Dan offers her a hood to put back on. She says, “Is he ever getting out?” Dan says, “Never.” She refuses the hood. (Plainly, her only concern is whether she’ll be compromised if “Amar” knows she’s there.)
SCENE 1 (CONTINUATION): (4:40) “Black Site Undisclosed Location” “Amar” is defiant. Dan shouts at him, then laughs in a friendly way and makes jokes by turns. Shows Amar a photo, wants contact information for the person in the photo. Promises better conditions if “Amar” gives information. Amar says “I won’t talk to you.” Dan says “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” They waterboard him while Maya watches at first, then assists by bringing the water. “Amar” screams, “I don’t know. Fuck you.”
Dan shouts questions–no answer–then repeats “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” Maya plainly finds the scene distressing.
They finish waterboarding him, stand him up, tied into a standing stress position. Dan says, “This is what defeat looks like, Amar. I have time, you don’t.” He’s plainly adept at psychological warfare–coming at someone from different directions. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology.” They leave Amar in darkness.
SCENE 2: (9:55) “Pakistan” Maya’s an uncomfortable-looking passenger in a car going through a high-security checkpoint: the U.S. Embassy. “United States Embassy Islamabad” Inside, Dan is coming down the stairs with Joseph Bradley, the Islamabad CIA station chief. Talking about what a tough nut to crack “Amar” is. Dan introduces Maya to Bradley.
Bradley asks how she likes Pakistan. Maya says, “It’s kind of fucked up.” Bradley says, “You volunteered for this post, didn’t you?” She says, “No.” Bradley looks surprised. He tells her where her desk is and sends her down the hall.
Dan says to Bradley, “You don’t think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?” Bradley replies, “Washington says she’s a killer.” Dan goes “Oooo. Children’s crusade, huh?”
SCENE 3: (13:11) Mid-level strategy meeting at the CIA station. One is Jennifer, a senior analyst. Dan brings Maya in. They’re talking about “Amar,” other subjects. Maya is listening while they talk. At one point they mention something going on at Tora Bora– and Maya corrects them on their assumption of what it’s about. “No,” she says. “That’s pre-9-11 behavior.” The moment passes, they talk about other things.
SCENE 4: (15:29) Maya sleeping on couch (in her apartment?) She’s awakened by the Islamic call to prayer on a nearby loudspeaker.
COMMENT: In the very first scenes, there’s a strange communication disconnect between “Amar” and the interrogators. “When you lie, I hurt you,” Dan says again and again. But rather than lie, Amar refuses to give any information at all. Still, Dan says, “When you lie, I hurt you.” Is this disconnect symbolic?
The first scenes set up several themes about Maya. She’s fanatically focused, doesn’t talk much, doesn’t waste words. (Through the movie, there are repeated shots where she just watches others talk.) She’s extremely knowledgeable–repeatedly corrects faulty assumptions with accurate information. She’s also almost clumsy in her outspokenness when she does speak out. These first two themes create contrast for the third: the male operatives don’t take her seriously. As a woman in a field rife with “alpha male” jockeying, she is a stranger in a strange land (even though she is not the only woman.) Even after she demonstrates her capabilities–in the end–Dan proves to have little faith in her assessment even though he’s grown fond of her as a colleague.
The scene where Maya looks drained after being awakened by the call to worship outside–lends emphasis to the sleep deprivation torture to which Amar is being subjected.
SCENE 5: (15:45) Back to the interrogation of Amar–playing heavy metal music while he’s in his stress position–plainly a long time. Maya is repelled by the stench in the room. Dan gives him a cold fruit drink. “Let’s take it easy today, huh?” He gulps it down greedily, plainly dehydrated. Dan gives him some food and he wolfs that down, as well.
Dan asks him a question about the “Saudi Group.” He says he’s just a cash courier. Dan says, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” He begins to cry. Dan says, “I believe you.” (Playing the “good cop” for a moment.) Dan asks him “Do you want the water again?” Ammar begs. “Just give me a name,” Dan says. “I don’t know,” Ammar says. They begin to torture him again. “You don’t mind if my female colleague checks out your junk, do you?” Dan says, and pulls Ammar’s pants down. “Dude,” Dan says, “did you shit your pants?” They go out and leave her with him. (He’s tied in a standing stress position.) Amar asks her to help him. She says coldly, “You can help yourself by being truthful.”
They come back in, put a dog collar on him, make him walk on his hands and knees to a 5’ long box on a table, and make him get into it. “When is the attack?” “Sunday” “Sunday where? Next Sunday? Where? Is it Sunday or Monday? Partial information will be treated as a lie.” As they put Ammar into the box, he shouts different days of the week. Maya is watching intently.
COMMENT: Amar plainly gives false information in this scene. He is plainly courageous, becoming a figure of considerable dignity and pathos. In the course of the movie, all the detainees are quite human. They can easily be taken as more sympathetic than the American CIA agents.
SCENE 6: “May 29, 2005 Khobar, Saudi Arabia” (23:09) Shows two terrorists machine gunning in what might be a bank lobby. A TV screen says, “22 dead.” Jennifer, Dan, and Maya are watching on the TV at the CIA station. Dan feels bad because he didn’t get the information from Amar to stop the attack. Dan and Jennifer are arguing about it, Maya is listening. Maya says, “Y’know, Amar doesn’t know this attack happened. He’s in complete isolation. We could tell him anything.” “What?” Dan says. “Bluff him?”
SCENE 7: (24:30) They’re getting Amar out of isolation. Dan and Maya take him outside and give him a nice lunch. He has short-term memory loss from sleep deprovation, so Maya says, “After we kept you awake for 96 hours, you gave us the names of some of your brothers. Saved the lives of a lot of innocent people.” (Note: Maya is wearing a head scarf in this scene: showing respect to Amar?)
He starts to eat. Dan engages him in conversation. He also begins to talk–about traveling with a partner after 9-11. Maya begins to ask him questions–her interrogating style is very cold and stiff. Not like Dan’s ability to go from harsh to easy-going. Amar is reluctant to give up names, Dan threatens to “hang you back up to the ceiling.” He gives them some names of people he was traveling with. One name is Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti.
He says, “My uncle told me he worked for Bin Laden.” There is a kind of mutual respect to this conversation.
COMMENT: It’s worth noting that they only got information from Amar when they stopped torturing him. Again, Amar has become a figure of considerable dignity.
SCENE 8: “Abu Ahmed” (28:14) Maya is watching recordings of multiple interrogators interrogating other people–looking for Abu Ahmed. Some are being tortured, some are not. She’s obviously pouring over many recordings for a long time. Scene expresses her intensity.
SCENE 9: (30:37) Maya and Jennifer are in their kitchen. Jennifer asks, “How’s the needle in the haystack?” They discuss Al Queda motivations. There’s a sort of comparing of “chops”–friendly competitiveness here. Jennifer brings in the subject of bribing Al Queda members for information. Maya is dubious about the effectiveness of that. This subject returns in force later on.
SCENE 10: (31:12) Maya is packing, taking along her passport and a wig. “CIA BLACK SITE Gdansk, Poland” She’s going onto a ship, wearing the black wig. They’re interrogating a man who ID’s Abu Ahmed from a photograph. Abu Ahmed worked with “Al Faraj. They were always together.” Abu Ahmed carried messages from Faraj to Bin Laden. She’s suspicious, so they ask questions to make sure the subject is telling the truth.
SCENE 11: (32:50) She’s back in Islamabad, telling station chief Bradley, Dan what she’s learned about Ahmed, etc. She knows Abu Ahmed is important, but has a hard time getting Bradley to listen to her. “It’s still good work,” Bradley says. “Let me know when you’ve got some actionable intelligence.”
COMMENT: Again, there’s an example of her incisive thinking and research–only to be doubted by a male supervisor.
SCENE 12 (34:17) “July 7, 2005 London” Shows people riding a double decker bus, a bomb goes off, shows ambulance with sirens. Television says, “This is what remains of the number 10 bus.” Bradley watching the video, watching interviews with the wounded. Shows Maya listening to the television. Shows “Baghram Air Force Base Afghanistan” while the news report plays. “CIA BLACK SITE” Shows Dan feeding his pet monkeys in a cage. One of them steals his ice cream cone and he laughs. A guard comes by, says, “You agency guys are twisted. Detainee’s ready for you.” He glances fondly at the monkeys as he walks away to interrogate another victim.
COMMENT: This is the only scene with what Dan calls “my” monkeys. But he mentions them again later.
SCENE 13 (36:41) Maya in a vail, entering a barbed-wire security area. “ISI DETENTION CENTER Pakistan” She has become better at interrogating, though she still lacks Dan’s ability to go from bad cop to good cop and back again. She threatens the subject (Al Queda’s “key financier) with being sent to Israel. He says, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question, I will answer.” Abu Ahmed, the man reveals, is Bin Laden’s “most trusted courier.” Refers to him as “one of the disappeared ones.”
COMMENT: Maya’s cold tone when questioning detainees is plainly an intentional construction by the moviemakers. I don’t think the actress, scriptwriter, or director would feel insulted if one referred to the character as a “cold bitch.” In fact, that would be in keeping with the description headquarters sent down on her: “She’s a killer.”
Also worth noting, this detainee does give information in response to torture–or at least the threat of torture. This too, however, is a character with considerable dignity. He seems to be an educated professional, perhaps a doctor.
SCENE 14 (38:28) At a Mosque, CIA operatives, including Dan, force a contact to put the finger on Al Faraj, who is captured.
SCENE 15 (40:55) Back at the CIA station, Bradley tells Maya “I got you a 1-on-1 with Faraj.” There’s also a bit of interplay–she knows what information Bradley wants before he even asks for it, showing how keenly she knows the people she’s working with–as well as the ones she’s working on.
SCENE 16 (41:36) Dan is interrogating Faraj, who has a hood over his head. They walk past Maya, who is waiting to interrogate him. “Can I be honest with you?” Dan says. “I’m bad fuckin’ news. I’m gonna break you. Any questions?” Apparently, before Maya talks to him they torture him with some kind of food enema. She doesn’t get any information out of him, so they waterboard him. (By this time, she has become fully accustomed to using torture, though the men do the actual torturing.) Afterword, though, she is sick, almost throwing up in the bathroom.
SCENE 17 (44:42) She complains to Dan that Faraj is revealing nothing. Dan says, “He’s either going to keep withholding or he’s gonna die from the pressure you’re putting on him. She asks Dan, “You want a run at him.” Dan says, “No.” He’s going back to the United States. He’s burned out. “I’ve seen too many guys naked. I need to go do something normal for awhile.” He invites her to come back to Washington with him but she says, “I’m not gonna find Abu Ahmed from D.C.” He says, “They killed my monkeys.” He also tells her, politics are changing back in the States and she doesn’t want to be the last CIA operative “holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” She’ll have to be careful, he says. “And watch your back when you get back to Pakistan. Everyone knows you there now.”
COMMENT: This seems to me to be an important scene. First, it shows that Maya is just as willing to use torture as any of the men–perhaps more than the men. Second, Dan’s burnout (“I’ve seen too many guys naked” and “They killed my monkeys”) indicates the toll the torture and interrogations have taken on him. For all his schmoozing attitude–this is not work he could do with impunity. For both of them, then, it’s soul-destroying activity–perhaps for the perpetrators more than for the victims, who keep their dignity.
SCENE 18 (46:18) Shows her car being examined at a checkpoint. “September 20, 2008 MARRIOT HOTEL” Maya and Jennifer having dinner. Jennifer says, “Maya–we’re socializing. Be social. So Faraj went south on you, there are other contacts.” Maya says, “It’s a good thing because the fact that Faraj withheld on Abu Ahmed is very revealing.” It means that Faraj considered Ahmed just as important to protect as Bin Laden. Jennifer talks about how run-down Maya is. “No boyfriend,” Jennifer says. “You got any boyfriends at all?”
Then a bomb goes off and they crawl out through the burning kitchen to escape. Then a long shot of the hotel burning and a TV news voiceover saying, “The blast left a crater ten meters across. The driver detonated more than 2,000 pounds of explosives.” Again–in this instance, the torture gets them nothing. Even though, as the next scene indicates, Faraj broke–possibly died–under torture. The insight Maya obtained, came from what the detainee refused to say.
The bombing of the hotel is another indicator of the danger they face–and also, as with other references to actual news events–ties the story in with events and a time line with which the viewer is familiar–lending verisimilitude.
SCENE 19 (50:32) “THE MEETING TRIBAL TERRITORIES Northern Pakistan” Shows a mountainside village. A Jordanian “mole” videos an Al Queda meeting, then sends the tape to the CIA station “to prove his bona fides.” Jennifer believes he was turned by the prospect of big money and she wants to meet with the man, a Jordanian doctor, and Bradley okays it. Both Bradley and Maya are dubious. “We’ve gotta evaluate him face to face.” Bradley reluctantly agrees.
But the doctor won’t travel to Islamabad. “Security risk.” During a second meeting on that topic, they watch the new U.S. President, Obama, say that torture is wrong and it’s going to be stopped–that he’s going to uphold America’s “moral stature in the world.”
They watch wordlessly.
“He wants us to go to him,” Jennifer says. (The doctor.) “He’s not gonna travel outside of Al Queda territory.” Another operative proposes Camp Chapman, Afghanistan. “That can be safe territory.”
SCENE 20 “CAMP CHAPMAN Khost, Afghanistan” (53:00) Jennifer is going to meet him. She’s excited. “This guy is the first big break we’ve had since 9/11. . . . And I think the money is persuasive.” “Dec. 30, 2009” Jennifer is very excited, has visions of “updating the President” because this fellow could lead them right to Bin Laden. The subject is very late for the meeting. When he arrives, Jennifer wants security to give him a pass. She orders no search at the checkpoint. He drives in, sets off a car bomb and kills Jennifer and all those around her. Upshot is–Jennifer let her hopes get ahead of her, wasn’t careful enough. (Definite style difference between Maya & Jennifer.)
A news voiceover says “The CIA says 7 of its employees were killed and 6 others wounded. . . .”
COMMENT: A lot going on, here. They watch wordlessly as Obama says the torture is wrong and it has to be stopped. What are they thinking? Any interpretation of their thoughts would basically be surmise.
Jennifer has talked from early on–that she thinks bribes are an effective way to gain information–while Maya is more doubtful about that. There’s a sense that Jennifer let her excitement about this contact lure her into a trap–that perhaps she wasn’t disciplined enough. At the same time–it becomes plain that Maya is more alone than ever, psychologically if not physically.
SCENE 21 (1:01:08) As the news voice plays out (“Worst attack in CIA history.” Jennifer “was the mother of three.”) Maya stares into space and almost cries. A co-worker comes in and asks, “You okay? I didn’t think this day could get any worse, but bad news from Saudi Intelligence.” Abu Ahmed is dead, he says. And hands her a detainee video. She jumps right on it–revived.
In the video, a man is saying, “I buried him with my own hands.” Watching, she says, “No, I don’t believe this.” The co-worker says, “Sorry. I always liked this lead.” Another co-worker comes in and asks, “What are you going to do?” She says, “I’m gonna smoke out everybody involved in this op. And then I’m gonna kill Bin Laden.”
SCENE 22 (1:04:10) “HUMAN ERROR” High-level meeting at U.S. Embassy. An upper level CIA official, George, is browbeating station personnel, including Bradley. They need to step it up to stop Al Queda. Recaps the range of Al Queda attacks. Pounds table. “I want targets. Do your fucking jobs. Bring me people to kill.”
SCENE 23 (1:06:16) An aide, Debby, brings Maya photos she found by combing through all the data bases. “It’s him. One of ten names on a watchlist from the Moroccans after 9/11.” Name is Ibrahim Said. Traveled through Morocco to Pakistan under the name Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti. Maya says “Doesn’t matter. I wish I’d had that five years ago.” Debby says, “You inspired me to come to Pakistan.” Offers to buy her lunch. Maya says, “Don’t eat out. It’s too dangerous.” But she’s studying faces on wall posters in her office.
SCENE 24 (1:08:01) “CIA HEADQUARTERS Langley, Virginia” Dan is now at CIA Headquarters and Maya calls him, says Debby found Abu Ahmed. She tells him Ibrahim Said may not actually be dead. “All the brothers in the family look alike. Three of them went to Afghanistan. . . . I think the one calling himself Abu Ahmed is still alive. The picture we’ve been using is wrong. It’s of his older brother, Habib.” This because they have no intercepts or corroboration that Abu Ahmed died. All they have is the word of a detainee in a video from Saudi Arabia, saying he buried him. “If someone as important as Abu Ahmed had died, they’d be talking about it online and in chat rooms all over the place.” They argue a bit. But she talks him into bringing her contact information for the Said family.
COMMENT: After a brief disappointment, Maya is back on the trail of the link to Osama Bin Laden. Dan’s convinced enough to follow up the lead. This would also suggest that input from detainees under interrogation–is not a real reliable source of information.
There are many sources that are more reliable–if harder to interpret.
SCENE 25 (1:09:39) Dan schmoozes his CIA superior, “The Wolf,” (who is Islamic) into providing “a couple hundred thousand bucks” to track down information on the Said family. “The Wolf” says, “As you know, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us.” Alludes to Senate investigations, etc. The CIA Director is worried they’ll want “a body” to throw to public opinion. Dan says, “I ran [the interrogation program.] I’ll defend it.” “The Wolf” says, “Done.”
SCENE 26 (1:11:12) “Kuwait City, Kuwait” A posh nightclub. Dan is bribing a playboy sheikh to provide information. “Why I should help you?” the man says. “Because we’re friends,” Dan says. To pay him off, Dan arranges to give him a V-10 Lamborghini sports car. They go right to the dealership in the middle of the night. (Note Dan’s ability to act comfortable around anybody in any situation–opposite of Maya.) In return, Dan wants the phone number of Said’s mother. “There will be no repercussions in Kuwait,” the Sheikh says. Dan nods. “I think somebody might die at some point in Pakistan.” So he gets the deal.
COMMENT: A couple of points worth mentioning. First, Maya would have been no good working an information deal with this. She doesn’t have the “schmoozing” chops Dan has. Second–again–there are a lot of ways for the CIA to gain information in this movie.
For all the time spent on torture, it’s clearly not as effective as other methods if they’re done right. Then again, this is a bribe, which blew up on Jennifer. In this case, though, it’s made clear that Dan is bribing someone he calls a “friend,” in what’s obviously an existing relationship, rather than someone they don’t know. The threads in this movie are continually woven with this kind of subtlety–and ambiguity.
SCENE 27 (1:13:37) “TRADECRAFT” They tap Said’s mother’s phone, trace calls to Pakistan. They’re getting a location, but the “ground branch team” is not helping, which annoys Maya. “He’s at the Rawal call center in Rawalpindi.” She accosts the team leader herself. “Why don’t you deploy at the call center in Rawalpindi,” she demands.
“The guy never stays with his phone long enough,” the t.l. says. She pushes. He pretty much blows her off. She follows with him, stays on it, explains who Ibrahim Said is. She has to do a lot of explaining–completely backtrack how they know this is the guy–in detail. The t.l. says, “Look, if he refers to an operation or anything remotely fishy I’ll get on him, okay?” But that’s not good enough, she says. She has to explain more about how Abu Ahmed (Said) operates. “He works [directly] for Bin Laden,” she says. “Guys who talk about ops on the phone don’t get that job.” The t.l. just looks away. “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this,” she says. “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” He finally nods.
SCENE 28 (1:17:18) marketplace in Rawalpindi. The team has gone mobile in the Rawal district, trying to get a fix on the cell phone user. Takes a lot of work. They’re not finding much. She has to keep after Bradley to keep up the phone surveillance amid other distractions, such as the attempted Times Square truck bombing. “If you really want to protect the homeland,” she tells Bradley, “You’ll get Bin Laden.” Argument. She finally tells Bradley, “The truth is, you don’t understand Pakistan.” Threatens him that he’ll get in trouble for “diverting efforts to capture or kill Bin Laden.” “You’re fucking out of your mind,” he says to her. She tells him to either give her the tech team she needs or send her back to D.C. and “explain to the director why you did it.” He finally backs down.
COMMENT: Again, there’s an ongoing (subtly played–as usual) theme around Maya’s difficulty getting respect and cooperation from her male counterparts. There’s a corresponding theme–that she’s willing to be even tougher than the men if she has to, to achieve her goal.
SCENE 29 (1:20:28) She’s in a bar. One tech comes to her with a special phone–that will ring when Said’s phone rings, so she’ll know when they’re tracking him. “Did I hook you up,” he says. “Did I?” She laughs and hugs him.
SCENE 30 (!:21:00) “Rawalpindi, Pakistan” She’s now working directly with the tech team on the ground, laying out the strategy for them. The t.l. looks a bit nonplussed that she’s taking over to that degree. On station, they have trouble with local men with pistols. There’s resentment that there are even Anglos in Pakistan. But the men finally give way.
In a complex set of chase-like scenes, through marketplaces, they get, then lose phone contact. Said is moving around a lot. Maya tracks it from a distance. A few minutes here, a few minutes there. The subject does a lot of calling. But it can be weeks between calls. There’s no pattern.
SCENE 31 (1:25:17) In the meantime, there’s unrest in Islamabad and “The CIA’s top spy in Pakistan had to be pulled out,” according to a news report. Bradley is sent back to the U.S. after his name is revealed in a lawsuit (by Jennifer’s family?) Maya sympathizes with him. He’s still angry with her.
SCENE 32 (1:27:12) The tech team on the ground is getting closer. They realize Said is in a vehicle. They follow different vehicles with drivers on cell phones. At last they get a photo. He’s in a white suv-type vehicle. Maya is jubilant when the t.l. brings the photos.
“If you’re right,” he says, “The whole world’s gonna want in on this. So you gotta stick to your guns, now.”
COMMENT: At least she seems to have won over the tech team leader.
SCENE 33 (1:30:18) She goes to the new Station Chief and requests “picket” lines (lookouts) stationed where they can watch for the white truck. He agrees. She says, “So you agree with me now, that this is important?” He says, “No. I just learned from my predecessor that life is better when I don’t disagree with you.”
SCENE 34 (1:30:52) A raft of observers track the white van. She narrates as they track him toward the city of Abaddobad.
SCENE 35 (1:31:28) When she pulls her car out of her apartment garage, it’s attacked by gunmen. She doesn’t get hit, but she barely escapes by lying on the floor, throwing it into reverse, pushing the accelerator so that the car crashes back into the garage. She’s then able to hit the remote button to close the steel garage door.
SCENE 36 (1:33:34) The Station Chief wants to send her home, but she says, “Any American in Pakistan is a target.” The attempt to kill her doesn’t mean they know she works for the CIA. But he sends her home anyway.
SCENE 37 (1:34:05) No dialogue as the lookouts track the white truck to a compound in Abaddobad.
COMMENT: Maya is sent back to Washington. This is a fairly smooth plot device to keep her at the center of the discussion as it moves to the highest levels of government.
SCENE 38 (1:35:33) “PREDATOR BAY CIA Headquarters” A roomful of technicians on monitors watch as drones send back arial photographs of the compound. Maya walks in. The supervisor says, “We lost him for 7 years. Now we pick him up again and boy, does he have a really nice house. Is that it?” Maya says, “Pretty much.” “All right, the supervisor says. Let’s go talk to the boss.”
SCENE 39 (1:36:27) As they’re getting ready for the big meeting, Bradley questions her, tells her to sit in the corner. The CIA director comes in. They give him the background, explain the compound. Maya watches as they explain–and that it’s only a mile from the Pakistani West Point. “It’s more like 8 tenths of a mile,” Maya says, speaking up for the first time.” “Who are you?” the Director says. “I’m the mother fucker who found this place,” she retorts. The Director eyes her, then says, “I want a look inside that house by the end of the week,” and walks out. Dan looks at her, amused. Her supervisor, George, looks at her–not amused. Bradly says softly, “Mother fucker–good.”–bemused.
COMMENT: Establishes “The Director” as the guy that everybody kowtows to–tough guy who asks hard questions. Maya’s response reinforces her character. The “mother fucker” line strikes me as a bit awkward–not the best way to establish her character with the Director. But she’s outspoken when she does speak, right? The audience would definitely notice–and the Director notices. And it does give opportunity for Dan and Bradley to display a bit of collegial affection along the “there goes Maya again” line.
SCENE 40 (1:39:15) Every day, she walks into the supervisor (George’s) office and writes on his hall window with lipstick how many days it’s been since the Director said he wanted a look inside the house “within the week.” George doesn’t appreciate it. Drone surveillance does continue. At 52 days, she’s called and told to “Swing by, I want to show you something.” The tech shows her they’ve found 2 males, 3 females in the upper apartment in the compound. According to Pakistani social morays, he says, that means there’s another male inside.
SCENE 41 (1:41:04) “SITUATION ROOM The White House” George is explaining what this means–that a man is hiding in the house and staying out of sight. “The Wolf” wants a better look inside the house, but George says they can’t do that without getting someone inside the house.
SCENE 42 (1:41:30) George explains how they finally got someone–a doctor pretending to do vaccinations–into the house. “But that didn’t work out.” The unidentified third male does not leave the compound for any reason. “This is a professional attempt to avoid detection,” George says. “Real tradecraft.” Estimates: a 40% chance the unidentified man is a senior Al Queda operative. 35% chance he’s a Saudi drug dealer. 15% chance he’s a Kuwaiti arms smuggler–etc. Finally, “Wolf” says, “If you can’t prove it’s Bin Laden, at least prove it’s someone else.”
COMMENT: Again, showing a variety of ways to gain information. And the character of Maya is well enough established, we totally buy that she would continually nag George about taking action on her information.
SCENE 43 (1:44:24) At 100 days, they’ve eliminated the possibility of drug dealing. They’ve continued to study the house. Another meeting with “The Wolf.” “The President is a thoughtful, analytical guy,” Wolf says. “He needs proof.”
SCENE 44 (1:45:10) At last it leads to a hallway meeting at the White House. “This is not political,” Wolf tells George. “This is pure risk, based on deductive reasoning, instinct, supposition,” and 6-year-old human reporting. “The political move here is to tell you to go fuck yourself.” He then compares it to WMD claims during the Bush administration. “How do you evaluate the risk of not doing something,” George asks.
“And letting Bin Laden slip through your fingers.” “How are we going to do it?” Wolf asks. “Give us options.”
COMMENT: Kind of ironic that The Wolf makes a reference to the Bush presidency’s Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction fiasco in Iraq–and George’s response is exactly what the Bush administration said in pushing that blunder in the first place: “What’s the risk of doing nothing?”
SCENE 45 (1:46:50) “AREA 51 Southern Nevada” They’re looking over a warehouse full of stealth helicopters. “I actually tried to kill this program,” the briefer says, then lays out all the hi-tech equipment aboard the helicopters. There’s a Seal Team present.
When the Seal Team members ask what they’re going to use the helicopters for, George has Maya brief them. She gives background, tells about Said, the courier, then says they assess Bin Laden is one of the other occupants of the house. “You got an intel source on the ground?” one of the Seals asks. They’re very doubtful. She says, “They’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if U.B.L. isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser.” Then she says, “Bin Laden is there. And you’re gonna kill him for me.”
COMMENT: As usual, the men on the Seal Team are dismissive of Maya, don’t trust her. Maya’s character is consistant in the face of this: she’s always tough as nails and fanatically determined to get Bin Laden.
SCENE 46 (1:50:11) Back at CIA headquarters, George is expressing doubts they will get an approval for the operation. Maya is still writing the number of days on the hall window of his office. (129) “Wolf” smiles and says, “It’s her against the world.”
SCENE 47 (1:50:39) Big meeting–the CIA Director says, “I’m about to go look the President in the eye.” He wants to know exactly where everyone stands on this operation. One says, the case for WMD in Iraq was much stronger than this case. He estimates a 60% probability. Wolf: “I concur.” George is at 80%. Dan says, “It’s a soft 60, sir. I’m virtually certain there’s a high value target there, I’m just not certain it’s Bin Laden.” Someone asks “what Maya thinks.” The others say–dismissively–“We’re all incorporating her assessment into ours.” She answers anyway. 100% she’s positive Bin Laden is there. Then she says, “Okay, 95% because I know certainty freaks you guys out.”
SCENE 48 (1:52:08) Walking down the hall to the elevator, the CIA Director says, “They’re all cowed. What do you think of the girl?” His assistant, Jarron, says, “I think she’s fucking smart.” The Director says, “We’re all smart, Jarron.” The elevator doors close.
SCENE 49 (1:52:31) In the cafeteria, the Director walks up and sits down with Maya. She’s suddenly nervous (smoothing her clothes.) He asks her about her history with the CIA. (“12 years,” she says.) “What else have you done for us besides Bin Laden?” he askes. “Nothing,” she says. “I’ve done nothing else.” “Well you certainly have a flair for it,” he says.
COMMENT: The “Cia Director” has been set up as a super-tough, super-perceptive guy who wants straight answers. It’s fitting with both characters that he goes straight to Maya to size her up 1-on-1, evaluate what her “certainty” is worth.
SCENE 50 (1:53:20) “THE CANARIES May 1, 2011 Forward Operating Base, Jalalabad, Pakistan” At a forward Seal Base, the Seals are relaxing: playing catch with a football, playing horseshoes, playing cards. Maya’s watching them, smiling. They’re bantering about Maya’s “confidence” that Bin Laden is in the compound. George calls her on her cell phone. “Maya, I wanted you to hear it first. You know that thing we talked about? It’s gonna happen. Tonight.” She looks back at the Seals in shock. (Similar expression to when Jennifer was killed.) They’re going after Bin Laden tonight and they’re just relaxing like they didn’t have a care in the world? And they’ve been training for this operation–and never hinted to her. They didn’t trust her to mention it? Or they just didn’t think she was important enough to tell? Either way, she’s still very much the outsider.
COMMENT: This is an important scene. It says a lot very quickly–the Seals are a “work hard, play hard” kind of team. But they’re also a “male-bonded” group of men. And Maya will never be an equal.
SCENES 51 & AFTER (1:55:17) Action sequence–the Seals board their helicopters and attack the compound, killing Bin Laden. Quick shot of Maya watching them load and fly away. Angry? Hurt? Just tense? As the mission proceeds–brief glimpses of her following on computer screen at the base com center. They’re joking about Tony Robbins as they fly toward Abaddabad. With the screaming of the women and the whimpering of the children, there’s no glory here. When they radio back, “Target secure,” Maya appears almost in tears. Choppers are ghostly, flying away, silhouetted against the downed, burning helicopter.
COMMENT: Maya co-directing the operation via computer screen and voice phone–even assisting–strikes me as pure fantasy. Still, it works well enough to keep her in on the center of the action.
The combat scenes are low-key, (minimal special effects and explosions–considering), tense, and gripping. This sequence, which the audience has been waiting for since the beginning of the movie, is a real tour-de-force, setting the movie apart from mindless “action” movies. The action is tense, rather than spectacular.
FINAL SCENES: (2:24:45) Maya waits anxiously as they land. There’s a lot of dust and her hair blows wildly. They hustle Bin Laden’s body past her and into the hangar. Then they take their night helmets off and there’s a bit of post-football-game style celebrating.
Then they go to work sorting out the computer gear they got from the compound–which pieces came from which room. They don’t even notice Maya as she walks through them to look at the body. Their commander watches her as she unzips the body bag. She looks at the face and nods at the commander. He says on his cell phone, “Sir. The agent on scene says there’s visual confirmation. Yessir. The girl. 100%. Thank you, sir.”
Her face is troubled as she re-zips the body bag. Relief. But something else, as well. She walks back out onto the runway, to a C-130 cargo plane that’s waiting for her. The ramp goes down, she walks into the empty cargo chamber. “Maya?” The pilot yells.
“Yeah,” she shouts back. “That’s the only name they gave me. You can sit wherever you want, you’re the only one on the manifest.” She takes a seat. “You must be pretty important,” he yells. “You got the whole plane to yourself. Where you wanna go?” he asks. But she doesn’t answer. She starts to cry softly. The movie closes with her silently crying for about 40 seconds, then the screen goes black.
COMMENT: The final setting: Maya alone in the huge cargo hold of the C-130; symbolizes just how alone she has been through the whole movie. One has to reflect this is not just about “getting” Osama Bin Laden. It’s also about being a female motion picture director in a culture where women under 35 are interchangeable pieces of furniture–and women over 35 are invisible.
The primary theme of this movie, is the dismissiveness toward a woman in a male business, no matter how focused she is; no matter how ruthless she is. Maya was like Lady MacBeth, saying, “Now gods, unsex me here.” But she’s smart and visionary in a way Lady MacBeth never was. She achieved her goal. But she will never be accepted.
I take the movie as autobiographical.