My husband and I did some Spring break traveling this week to his grandparents’ home. While the trip included dining and sight-seeing on the agenda, we also spent quite a lot of time catching up on movies. A theme in our movie selections emerged with Argo, Skyfall, and Zero Dark Thirty all screened during the visit, highlighting that 2012 featured an abundance of spies on the big screen, to say nothing of small screen spies in series like Homeland. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty proved particularly interesting, as both portrayed actual events albeit fictionalized version. Both films focus on CIA agents, with Argo depicting the CIA’s efforts to extract six American diplomats in what became known as the Canadian Caper, while Zero Dark Thirty tracks the CIA’s efforts to kill Osama bin Ladin.
Common themes between the two films struck me upon reflection. Both films focus on a single CIA agent. Argo director Ben Affleck performs as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who devises a plan to remove the diplomats under the pretense that they are a Canadian film crew scouting a location. Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, discovers the location of Osama bin Ladin in a Pakistani compound and doggedly advocates to pursue assassination based on the intelligence she gathered. In both cases, the protagonist leads the charge despite resistance from other spies and the bureaucratic institutions under which they operate. Both spies, however, manage to forge ahead with their plans, and their successes justify their rogue styles.
But in the same way that both Maya and Tony stand alone professionally, each also experience personal isolation as well. We learn of Tony’s estrangement from his wife and child, with Tony struggling to connect with his son through phone conversations and apologetic birthday cards. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty depicts Maya as singularly devoted to her work with only one scene depicting social activity. In that scene, Maya’s female colleague asks about her relationships with another agent, which Maya insists is strictly professional. The women never get beyond work conversation, with the terrorist forces they fight in their work abruptly interrupting the moment: a bomb explodes in the hotel restaurant where they share drinks, literally demonstrating the ways in which the perils of spy work can inhibit other aspects of life. Both Maya and Tony, then, find that their work alienates them from others.
Even in victory, the secretive nature of Maya and Tony’s employment prevents them from being fully recognized for their successes. Following the assassination of bin Ladin, Maya rides alone in an otherwise empty military transport, with the pilot stating that she must be a very important person to be riding in the transport all by herself. The pilot’s ignorance of the reasons for her escort highlight the thanklessness of her work. Tony similarly receives the Intelligence Star for his efforts, but must give his medal back as soon as he receives it–his recognition cannot be public due to the classified nature of his work. So while successful, the agents depicted in Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.
In the end, though, Tony and Maya’s stories differ with each film striking very different tones in their final moments. Tony returns to his wife and son, literally embracing them in the final shots of the film. In voiceover, then president Jimmy Carter describes Tony’s work as exemplary and additional titles explain that Tony has since been recognized with the declassification of the case (Argo itself is a product of that declassification process). We also learn that Tony reunited with his family and continued to maintain those ties in his later years. The last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, shows Maya alone on the transport, a single tear running down her cheek (see below).
Looking at Zero Dark Thirty on its own, this moment resonated with me, because it seems to present Maya’s endeavors as futile and the accomplishment of taking down bin Ladin as anticlimactic. The War on Terror has often been described as futile, with the bin Ladin’s death a symbolic victory rather than a substantial accomplishment. Maya’s response to her success beautifully captures the existential crisis that comes with the completion of such a mission.
Yet, the feminist in me feels that Maya’s short-changed in this moment. I fear that in Maya, we get a classic portrayal of a hollow professional woman who can’t find balance in her life, while Argo’s Tony gets that satisfaction of knowing he succeeded AND mends his relationships with his wife and kid. Loneliness, then, has a very different connotation for a single woman character, versus a married man. With all of the discourses out there telling women that they incomplete without a male partner, it disappoints me that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t allow Maya a sense of fulfillment in her work, even if that work in the name of American imperialism.