While Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the ongoing search for Osama bin Laden over the course of nine years, it is not a movie about Osama bin Laden. It is not about his death. It is not about his life. Zero Dark Thirty is about the generation of Americans that has come to be defined by the attacks of 9/11—the 9/11 generation.
When Zero Dark Thirty starts with actual audio recordings from the September 11, 2001 attacks, it is not marking the beginning of the search for Osama bin Laden—he had been the target of a search since the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole. Instead, beginning the film with this tragic, heart-wrenching audio-collage marks the seminal historical event of that generation. From the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers, members of the 9/11-generation recall events of national significance in the form of personal experiences and memories rather than historical fact. Every member of the 9/11 generation can recall exactly where they were when they first heard the news. And so, for this generation, Zero Dark Thirty is more than entertainment. It is a condensed account of events that have shaped their national identity, much in the same way they shape the identity of Maya—the CIA operative heroine of Zero Dark Thirty—in the film.
In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden being up for a Nobel Peace Prize, the 9/11 generation does not look to their government for truth. This generation gets their news from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, spends President’s Day weekend binge watching House of Cards, and follows PolitiFact on Twitter to sift through the emotional performances of election debates and campaign ads and the vitriolic partisan discourse coming from both sides of the aisle. The 9/11 generation was more interested in the hilarity of Romney’s “binders full of women” than whether or not the President called the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi a terrorist attack. And it is not lack of intelligence or responsibility that drives this apathy, but rather a lack of patience for the political grandstanding that the baby boomer generation has come to love.
In the same way that the 9/11-generation cares little for political drama, Maya—the CIA operative heroine of Zero Dark Thirty—offers no subjective judgments throughout the film. While her older superiors play politics, she seeks only to prove first that Abu Ahmed is the key to finding bin Laden, and second that bin Laden is in the Abbottabad compound. She offers no meaningful commentary on the prevalent use of “enhanced interrogation technique.” Her slightly older CIA colleague, Dan, differs in that he cracks under the ongoing torture he administers in his attempts to gain information. He eventually transfers to an office job back in the homeland; Maya, on the other hand, merely states that she won’t catch Abu Ahmed in Washington.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty ends with Maya’s completion of her search for Osama bin Laden and her confirmation of his death, but she offers no conclusion as to its meaning—neither for her own self, nor on a bigger scale. Twelve years ago, the film would have likely ended with the navy disposing of bin Laden’s body in the ocean while a victorious, patriotic score (affirming that America was still the greatest county in the world) carried a boisterous audience into the credits. This film was made in 2012, though, and the final shot is instead of a tear rolling down Maya’s face as she sits alone on a military plane; the credits appear, accompanied by an ominous and equally lonely piano. The audience, thus, is left to determine for themselves the meaning of the past two hours and forty minutes, of the past eleven years.
Many critics and viewers argued that Zero Dark Thirty came out too soon. Indeed, it was a mere matter of months: bin Laden was captured in May and the film was released in December. The screenplay had been written and finalized before bin Laden was even captured, prompting a significant last minute rewrite. But the timing of the film is purposeful—it catches the 9/11 generation right at a crossroads. Osama bin Laden has been caught; now what? In the movie, Maya reaches a crossroads when she loses fellow agents and friends in the war on terrorism. She decides that she has been spared to finish the job: to capture Osama bin Laden. As the 9/11 generation comes of age, it too must decide what its legacy will be. Nearly two years have passed since the 9/11 generation has brought its first judgement upon Osama bin Laden, and now they face the same question: now what? Justice has been dealt, but can they move on? Will they continue the same programs and direction enacted as a response to 9/11 and succumb to the political passions of its parent generation? Or will they allow themselves to be fully redefined and adhere to the motto engraved on the wall at Langley, “Seek ye first the truth and the truth will set you free”?
By Sara Kay Mooney and James Knicely