Zero Dark Thirty and the importance of backstory



Zero Dark Thirty is gripping and slow at the same time. The story is about these necessarily anonymous men and women who devoted years of their lives to locate Bin Ladin. The pace of the movie certainly mirrors the painstaking process.


The story itself felt real. Imperfect, often irritating individuals work together toward a common end. They disagree. Bosses pull rank. They work around protocol. They lie and deceive, spy and torture as part of their jobs. I kept wondering whether the job influences the person or the person influences the job. Who decides to make a lifestyle out of this?

The critics and politicians were all over the board on whether or not the film defended the use of torture. It was as if somebody kicked an anthill. So much posturing, accusation, and defending over a filmmaker’s decision to include something that was part of the story. It looked to me as if the film suggests that torture yielded less real information than the other interrogation methods used. Most of what the operatives did looked like detective work: surveillance, patience, and some dumb luck.

I was much more interested in the people who live this life on behalf of our country. And it is living a life rather than merely doing a job. Maya fascinates me most of all. I want to know more about what drives her. I want to know what happened in her life that causes her to be so focused on Bin Laden. Apparently her entire career has centered around his capture. It felt as if revenge is at least part of her motivation even before her friend Jessica is killed. But it’s a true story and I don’t get to know. I find this a bit frustrating as a member of an audience, though perfectly understandable as a citizen. There is no possibility of presenting the truth and providing a backstory for the characters when the characters are real CIA operatives whose details must be protected. But characters need backstory and Zero Dark Thirty would have been a better story with backstories for its characters.

Knowing one another’s backstories helps us relate. Understanding where someone comes from encourages love and acceptance. We tend to make allowances for annoyances and failures based on what we know about one another. It’s possible to be impressed with someone’s performance and strength of personality, but we need backstory to go further in a relationship than admiration. Each of us needs to know others and to be known. Backstory humanizes. It’s important to ask others about their backstories and to tell our own backstories to others.

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