Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Character Profile: Maya
While I'm still waiting on entries to my Women in Film Blogathon I thought I'd post one of my own about an interesting female character. It is an especially interesting case because as far as I know this is the first time director Kathryn Bigelow has given us a strong female protagonist, and she does the job quite nicely. I am of course talking about Jessica Chastain's performance as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.
I don't have much information on the actual person Maya was based on, outside of the fact that her name was changed for the film probably for security reasons. Nonetheless, what we have here is a strong, determined woman who takes the job of single-handedly going after the most dangerous man on Earth and even in the face of multiple obstacles and mounting pressure she refuses to give up in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.
We see this characterization established right at the beginning in her relationship with Dan at a "Black Site" (basically a secret torture camp set up by the CIA outside of American jurisdiction to get information from suspected terrorists). She never takes any action herself, but she always maintains that she can handle the brutality and watches up close several violent beatdowns of a prisoner without showing any signs of unease. This determination comes into play when she opts to find more creative outlets by which to convince the prisoner to speak, such as temporarily letting him out and tricking him into thinking he gave information that saved a bunch of lives (when in fact he had withheld information and a lot of people died).
This sheer sense of determination continues throughout the film. Maya refuses to give up, even when pressure is put upon her by her superiors. When they do have a lead she presses for it to be followed, to the point where she makes a point of counting the amount of time in which no progress has been made (by writing the numbers on her boss's window in marker). It all gets to the point where eventually she is the one person who is willing to confidently say with 100% certainty that Bin Laden is hiding where she has been led to suspect he is.
On the other hand, though, Maya is also a great character because she isn't perfect. She isn't cast as being better or smarter than any of the guys she works with. She does have her weaknesses and moments of emotion. The film doesn't exactly hide the fears and anxieties that go through her head, and she has plenty of reasons to feel that way (being increasingly trapped in her headquarters to the point where she can't so much as pull out of a driveway without being fired upon). She also develops a friendship with her partner Jessica and is clearly upset when she is killed trying to speak with a supposed informant. On the other hand Jessica's death gives Maya even more of a drive to keep up the search.
In addition, it is interesting that for all the determination Maya displays, it does have its consequences. It is summed up brilliantly in the final scene with no dialogue, when after spending a decade chasing Bin Laden and finally catching him Maya becomes unsure of what to do with herself. The shot of her sitting alone in an airplane, unsure how to answer the pilot's question of "where do you want to go?" as she suddenly bursts into tears. All through the film she has kept her head up and this single image of her crying provides such a contrast yet at the same time it emphasizes the confusion going through her head, the fact that she has no idea what to do now that all that determination has paid off.
Maya is a great character. She is a complex and well-rounded individual, with sufficient strength to make her engaging but imperfect enough to make her seem real. She is the perfect sort of character to guide us through the complicated events of Zero Dark Thirty, to the point where the movie may well be more about her than Bin Laden himself (who doesn't even appear until the very end, after he's been shot, and even then we only get a few glimpses of his corpse).