' ' Cinema Romantico: Countdown to the Oscars: Maya, My Favorite 2012 Movie Character

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Countdown to the Oscars: Maya, My Favorite 2012 Movie Character

Since the proper release of "Zero Dark Thirty" it seems that the criticism has thankfully shifted from the political arena (torture) to the cinematic arena, even if I personally think both arguments ring hollow. The dissatisfaction I have encountered regarding Kathryn Bigelow's rightful Oscar nominee for Best Picture involves the characterization of the main character, Maya. The oft-asked question: why do we care about her and/or why are we rooting for her?

Writing about the film in The New Yorker, Richard Brody, in a typically spectacular article (whether you agree or not) chock-full of talking points, boils it down to "deceptive emptiness." I think he gets one of those two words right. "Emptiness." He writes: "(T)here’s also no...personal context for the protagonist. Did Maya not have sex for ten years? Did she have no family with whom she communicates, no friends with whom she discusses her work, her obsession with catching bin Laden, her ideas about life in general? What did she put on hold in her pursuit for bin Laden?"

In my review I noted that "Throughout the film we never see Maya off location. She is always at the job, tucked away at some computer with some stack of files, questioning some detainee. She counts off the days since the compound’s discovery with no action by scribbling the number with a magic marker on her boss’s office window. So often 'possessed' characters in movies are given requisite home front scenes in which they are glimpsed ignoring spouses and forgetting children’s birthdays. Maya does not even have THAT."

The esteemed Roger Ebert has often lamented characters saddled with needless "context", writing, for example, of The Sports Movie Spouse, "This role, complete with the obligatory shots of the wife appearing in his study door as the husband burns the midnight oil, is so standard, so ritualistic, so boring, that I propose all future movies about workaholics just make them bachelors, to spare us the dead air." "Zero Dark Thirty" spares us the dead air!!!

Then again, movies typically have their reasons, however poorly executed, for showing the dead air. Sports Movies, for example, are always on a crusade to remind us that "it's just a game" - hence, the Suffering Spouse. She/He works to remind us (hammer home) that "it's just a game", symbolizing what the protagonist stands to lose by investing him/herself too deeply in the game.

By deliberately refraining from showing us the dead air, Bigelow lets us see how Maya stands to lose nothing personal as a result of her jihad against bin Laden. A colleague (Jennifer Ehle) offers a couple questions about a love life and Maya sluffs them off. A colleague offers to buy her dinner and Maya turns it down. In one blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment she returns to her makeshift residence dressed in traditional Islamic garb, turns on the TV and pops open a tall boy. This, we assume, must be her typical night. Clearly, she has a void. We know this because we never see her engaging in anything personal. She fills the void with the mission. Which is why when her boss threatens to shut the mission down she would rather blackmail him than face life without it. Her emptiness is not deceptive, it is refreshingly candid.

The movie ends, crucially, not with the infamous invasion of bin Laden's compound and his killing, but with Maya, all alone, on a military plane bound for a destination specifically not specified. "Where are we going?" the pilot asks her, and these are the film's final words. She has no idea where she's going. The concluding image is a close-up of Maya, a tear rolling down one cheek, and then another tear rolling down the other. Some have debated the intent behind these tears. To me, it is clear.

It is not until she is alone and forced to consider life without the pursuit just ended that she cries. The void is no longer filled. She has no Suffering Spouse to return to, no semblance of a life away from an interrogation room and military base and we understand this because the movie has consciously refrained from filling in those blanks. She has nothing, not a goddamn thing. So, where to? What now? She has no earthly idea.

I have said before that I adore films bold enough to wait until the final shot to reveal themselves in full, and this is precisely "Zero Dark Thirty's" ultimate intent. Oh, it could be argued that the tears she sheds are our tears too, that the symbolic weight on her shoulders was weight we all carried and that her realization of the hollowness of the ten year ordeal made foolish this need for closure that will never be had in the war on terror. But a character, first and foremost and above all else, is just that - a character, a person, one person and only one. And Maya's final moments are hers alone. The last shot reveals the film to be neither a bin Laden nor a 9/11 film. Instead, it is a Jessica Chastain film - or, more to the point, a Maya film.

Emptiness has never looked more soulful.


Andrew K. said...

This is a lovely write-up, Nick. You know that we disagree on Maya's inclinations and how effectively it plays for an audience but it's always great to watch a specific character move another film fan so.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, sir. I love that while you and I agree on so many things, when we disagree we can disagree respectfully. If only more of the interwebs functioned that way.