I am a pacifist at heart, but I love action movies. I value peace universally, and I tend to steer clear of war movies based on real stories. I like the work of Kathryn Bigelow, but I cringe at the content of her award-winning films. Given these dichotomies, I went to Zero Dark Thirty rather unwillingly, and walked away surprised.
The story follows firsthand accounts of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst, whose mission to track down Osama Bin Laden becomes an obsession after years of fruitless attempts at tracking him down, and dozens of her friends and colleagues die in the U.S.’s war on terror. Even clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, Bigelow’s eye is sharp, and the acting of the likes of Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, and James Gandolfini is excellent. But to assume that this is a narration of events, like the news might be or even a made-for-TV movie, would be incorrect.
I found myself wounded by the torture scenes, the bombings, and the assassinations that took place on both sides of this war. I found myself impressed by the way that Bigelow showed that there were no winners, only losers, in this war. There were certainly brave and courageous individuals who fought for those who died in 9/11, but that was not the absolute focus of the camera.
Instead, the more emotional aspect was the toll that the search for Bin Laden took on those involved, especially Chastain’s Maya. Maya gives up emotive relationships of any type, establishing no familial ties and developing no real friendships, in her single-minded pursuit of the man she sees as the mastermind of 9/11. She admits after nearly a decade that she has accomplished nothing else, and it’s not until she finds herself alone in a changing political climate, that she finally achieves success. Even as she sees her destiny having been fulfilled in tracking down Bin Laden.
End of story, right? You can see how that played out in the news, can’t you? But for me, the final scene says it all.
As the film fades to black, we see Maya sobbing quietly and alone. Just like she mourned the death of her friends in a suicide bomb blast early in the film, she now mourns… what? The fact that she is alone, purposeless, and forgotten, her mission completed? The emotional toll that being that angry, that vendetta-oriented, that revenge-filled has taken on her soul? Maybe it’s all of the above.
Confucious said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” The God of the Old Testament took that a step further and said that revenge was HIS alone (Deuteronomy 32:35). Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t say Osama Bin Laden didn’t deserve to die for his crimes against the 3,000-plus people killed under his direction. But it does imply that the cost may be just as great. For the children left orphaned, for the soldiers who are forever changed.
Maybe God knew what he was saying about revenge. We know God loves justice (Isaiah 30:18), and crimes need to be paid for, but when we pursue revenge, we invest ourselves to a degree that eats our soul from the inside out. It’s true when someone stole our lunch out of the refrigerator at work and we seek to get them back; it’s true when they’ve murdered a loved one and take the fulfillment of justice on ourselves. It’s the pain Maya feels at the end of the movie, and a warning to us about what happens when we try to take matters into our own hands.