Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness and the sound of a conversation that we immediately know is real. Trapped on a high floor of a tall building engulfed by fire, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she keeps repeating, her voice already becoming unmoored from her few years on this earth and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help; both women understand it will never come. We understand as well because this is the 11th of September 2001. When the call disconnects, we hear the operator mutter under her breath, “Oh my God,” and nothing in the movie that follows will be as wrenching as these few seconds in the dark; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prologue that can’t be undone or rectified, just avenged.
For Maya, the CIA operative at the center of Bigelow’s movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, we sense right away that the mission is personal. We meet her a couple of years after 9/11, witness to a waterboarding, and Bin Laden has become such an obsession that she can barely take satisfaction, however grim, when she unzips his body bag years later and acknowledges his exploded face. If the task consumed Maya any more, if she were just the slightest bit more unhinged, she would be Carrie, the CIA operative in Showtime’s series Homeland, on the trail of another high-level, albeit fictional al-Qaeda leader, Abu Nazir. In Homeland, that trail leads to a Marine sergeant who, presumed dead in Iraq, has returned home a hero. In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya tracks the phone calls of a messenger to somewhere behind the walls of a mystery compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As played by Claire Danes, bipolar Carrie is the smarter of the two women, more given to original thinking and therefore all the trouble such thinking gets her in. As played by Jessica Chastain, the analytical Maya is tougher than Carrie, more hard-boiled in her pursuit and therefore less interested in any inconvenient wisdom that perspective brings.
The all-business veneer that Maya and Carrie have in common covers a pulsing national wound that each of them feels. They’re relentless, more sure of themselves than is advisable even when they happen to be right about the big things, since—particularly in Carrie’s case—they’re so wrong about so many of the small things as to sabotage the big things. Neither Carrie nor Maya feels she has the luxury of the doubt that laps at the shore of her psyche. In Zero Dark Thirty, a crucial scene at CIA headquarters in Langley finds James Gandolfini, playing an unnamed Leon Panetta, polling his advisers around a table. They’re giving their best assessment of whether the stranger in the Abbottabad compound is Bin Laden. Sixty percent, says one of the odds; 40 percent, says another; a soft 60, concludes a third. “One hundred percent,” Maya insists at the back of the room. Wavering slightly, she amends herself, “Ninety-five,” before she shakes free the last lingering 5 percent of ambivalence and reverts to absolute certainty.
Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of the fact that both Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland are driven by such similar women, any more than we should make something of the timing by which the film’s release coincides with the conclusion of the series’ second season. In tone, the film and series are markedly different. While Bigelow’s direction can seem as bloodless as it is brilliant (even as the re-creation of Bin Laden’s final half hour is so meticulous and riveting that we’re in suspense over an outcome we know), Homeland is messy to the point of berserk, repeatedly jumping sharks and then somehow jumping back. But the film and series share a worldview far beyond the likes of Argo or 24 in complexity and Zero Dark Thirty could be a prequel to Homeland, the two bifurcating the war on terror into Before Abbottabad and After, when that war has become more amorphous rather than more defined, when the world has gotten more dangerous, not less. In Homeland, the coded message for danger as texted by one al-Qaeda conspirator to another is “May 1,” the date in 2011 when Navy SEALs finally found Bin Laden and killed him. It’s a date that may now have as much resonance for the enemy as September 11 has for us.
Maya and Carrie each are exiled to their respective sides of the Abbottabad divide. Having gotten her prey, Maya will be out of her element in Carrie’s new netherworld, where every shadow is cast not by the sun but the eclipse that blots it out, while in that CIA briefing room where Maya stands her ground, Carrie would vacillate from zero percent to a thousand and back with every manic-depressive mood swing. In their own zealous determination, however, both women hear the synapses of zealotry’s inner wiring. The male rationalists around them may provide experience and know-how; Jason Clarke’s Dan in Zero Dark Thirty and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul in Homeland—the closest thing to allies these women have—may even have more faith in Maya and Carrie than they sometimes have themselves, and more forgiveness for their limits. But they’re incapable of the women’s daring leaps of imagination. The irony of Maya and Carrie having a special insight into a religious extremism that so ruthlessly puts women in their place would be delicious if either of them had an ironic cell in her body.
If Bin Laden is the cipher of Zero Dark Thirty, who will not be identified by his killers let alone the audience until he’s dead in his bag, Damian Lewis’s Nicholas Brody is the ghost of Homeland. As elusive as Bin Laden even when he’s right in front of us, even when his pursuer Carrie falls in love with him, Brody keeps telling everyone on Homeland, no matter who they think he is, “I’m not who you think I am,” until by the end of the first season we come to realize that, in Brody’s mind, this isn’t a lie. In Brody’s mind, he’s neither the hero nor terrorist that his circumstances and actions keep indicating. By his own lights, Brody is nothing more or less than an American patriot, which is what’s subversive about Homeland; the fanaticism that Brody embraced in captivity, first as a tactic for survival and then as a way of life, is of a piece with the fanaticism of not just jihadists but patriots ordering drone strikes that write off children’s lives. It’s also of a piece with Carrie’s fanaticism, whatever her relationship with Brody happens to be at any given moment—whether she’s his lover, hunter, or dupe. Halfway through Homeland’s second season, Brody’s “I’m not who you think I am” has been turned on its head; not only isn’t he who we think he is, he’s lost track of whoever he thought he was. He’s been so many things, from failed suicide bomber to assassin to congressman to prospective vice president back to prime suspect, that Homeland has gone from being an Iraqi version of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 paranoid classic, The Manchurian Candidate, to an adrenalized 21st-century update of Kafka’s The Trial.
The paradox is that for all of Zero Dark Thirty’s documentarian hyperreality, Homeland may be closer to the war on terror’s chaotic id. It may be closer to the way that this thing we call a war for lack of something better renders topsy-turvy our assumptions about how wars are fought and won, closer to the ways that we’re limited in understanding the enemy who means to do us harm. In its understated fashion, Bigelow’s film recognizes the tactical ambiguities, to say the least, of torture and drone strikes, never mind the profound moral questions (at least until the moral questions become tactical concerns of their own, with incidents like Abu Ghraib turning into terrorist recruiting tools). Homeland, however, hints at something more profound. Implicitly Homeland grasps the difference between an ideological conflict that manifests itself on the ground in political and military terms, and a theological conflict that manifests itself in the ether socially and culturally. Ideological conflicts finally are about domination. Theological conflicts finally are about purification. The ideological winner means to prevail in worldly terms; the theological victor means to transcend the worldly. In the current war on terror that goes back further than September 11, pluralist democracies have been waging an ideological battle against the theocratic, while Islamic fundamentalists launch theocratic attacks on the ideological. Each fights a different war for different stakes in a century that pluralism views as inexorably progressive and that fundamentalism perceives as debased and damned.
Homeland began life as an Israeli series called Hatufim (the English title is “Prisoners of War”), in which two soldiers and the body of another return home from Lebanon after nearly two decades. As is befitting of a show informed by the ever-present insecurity and danger that Israel faces, Hatufim is more about the drama of men trying to readapt to a world that left them for dead and moved on, even as it becomes clear that the liberated prisoners have secrets of consequence. In Homeland the secrets are everything. They are of such consequence and so consume the drama that soon the secrets have secrets. In preproduction, Zero Dark Thirty was called For God and Country until the night Osama Bin Laden was killed, at which point the filmmakers realized they had to reconceive their picture. Now the original, unfilmed For God and Country is Zero’s twilit, alternate history, haunted not only by desperate cries for help from an earthbound skyscraper but by the American failure three months after 9/11 to nab Bin Laden at Tora Bora in the Afghan hills.
It would be altogether glib, given the incontestable political and military accomplishment, and given what it has meant to the families of 3,000 victims, to dismiss as somehow false the resolution that the catching and killing of Bin Laden provides to Zero Dark Thirty. It would be glib to suggest that the symmetry of the more open-ended For God and Country may have offered more insight into what the rest of the era holds for us. But when U.S. policymakers were distracted from Bin Laden by visions of Iraqi invasion, waged by its Nick Brodys of first fact and then fiction, a kind of Escher-loop came to thread Homeland and the version of Zero Dark Thirty that was never made. Whether hostage or interrogator—in Homeland’s season two she has been both, virtually within minutes of each other—Carrie is caught in the loop, never to exist outside it. Alone on her own private air transport in Zero Dark Thirty’s final scene, at last Maya sheds a single tear, perhaps for her own private oblivion that’s inevitable, perhaps for the sister, girlfriend, or stranger phoning years before from the flames of the 93rd floor.