Rarely have there been two such intriguing women at the heart of such a dramatic true story.
The first, a smart, prickly, compulsive CIA operative in her 30s, is the real-life Carrie Mathison (minus the slutty behavior at work).
She started at the agency out of school, just before the twin towers were attacked on 9/11, and worked in Islamabad tracking terrorists with the monomaniacal zeal of Captain Ahab. Like Carrie, she’s a talented analyst but not, according to colleagues, Miss Congeniality.
The Washington Post’s Greg Miller wrote about the young woman who spent years messianically hunting down Osama bin Laden, convinced that they could find the fiend by trailing the couriers who hand-delivered messages to him. The inspiration for Maya — the character played by Jessica Chastain in the new Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” — the CIA operative was allowed to share her story with Boal for his screenplay.
She is described in the movie as a “her against the world” lone wolf and “killer” whose bosses learn life is better when they don’t disagree with her. She was working in Pakistan as a targeter, recruiting spies and finding drone targets, when President Barack Obama put bin Laden’s capture back on the front burner.
“The operative, who remains undercover, was passed over for a promotion that many in the CIA thought would be impossible to withhold from someone who played such a key role in one of the most successful operations in agency history,” Miller writes. Who do you have to kill to get a raise around here?
Miller continued: “She has sparred with CIA colleagues over credit for the bin Laden mission. After being given a prestigious award for her work, she sent an email to dozens of other recipients saying they didn’t deserve to share her accolades, current and former officials said,” since they had tried to obstruct her.
We’ve become obsessed with the vicious undermining and murderously competing fiefdoms in the Stygian world of “Homeland.” And Miller offered insight into the real thing, noting the “waves of envy” the movie has generated as operatives wrangle over credit for felling Osama. As a former CIA associate told the reporter, the agency is “like middle-schoolers with clearances.”
In “No Easy Day,” the account of the raid by Matt Bissonnette, one of the SEALs who went after bin Laden, the female operative is called “Jen.” She wears expensive high heels and ribs Bissonnette about being part of “the boys’ club” that shows up at the very end “for the big game.”
When Bissonnette asks Jen to give him the honest odds that Osama is in the compound, she shoots back: “One hundred percent.” After the terrorist is killed and brought to a hangar in Jalalabad, she is overwhelmed and begins crying.
Bigelow, the driven director who tells the story of the driven operative, says she felt as if she’d been dealt “a royal flush” when they discovered a young woman at the center of the Osama hunt. You can say they undermine their heroine’s story of relentless, patient data crunching by leaving the impression — a false one, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — that waterboarding played a crucial role in getting Osama. Or, as the blogger Spencer Ackerman points out on Wired.com, you can say the film boldly depicts torture as “the intersection of ignorance and brutality.”
Bigelow, too, sets off waves of envy in her insular community. The glamorous 61-year-old, the first woman to win a best director Oscar, for “The Hurt Locker,” has become Hollywood’s unsentimental premier chronicler of war.
After worrying about criticism of their CIA access from the right, Bigelow and Boal are now the toasts of the right.
Some who have seen the movie say the harrowing repeated opening sequences of waterboarding, beating and degrading a detainee in a CIA black site to elicit intelligence puts “a thumb on the scale for torture,” as Slate’s Emily Bazelon writes. But the debate flares about whether this is merely “a problem of emphasis and degree, not absolute falsity,” as Bazelon argues, or whether it makes the film “borderline fascistic,” as the New York magazine film critic David Edelstein referred to the “unholy masterwork.” He also named it the best movie of 2012.
Bigelow told Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker that she was taking “almost a journalistic approach to film,” while Boal told New York magazine that he uses a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic.”
So did they gild, or in this case, waterboard the lily? Torture, after all, is a lot more “filmic” than poring over data.
As The Times’ Scott Shane and Charlie Savage have written, “the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out.”
On a conference call Tuesday organized by Human Rights First, Tony Camerino, an author and former Air Force interrogator, said he was puzzled over why Boal created “a piece of fiction” when “the real story” would be “just as exciting.” And he objected to a central character who’s complicit in torture “and yet is still viewed as a heroine.”
Boal told TheWrap.com that despite the gruesome torture scenes, viewers who come away thinking torture was the pivotal tactic in nabbing bin Laden, rather than one method used in a decade-long hunt, are “misreading the film.”
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.
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