Women Leaders in War Movies: Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario

Film review: Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, Columbia Pictures, 2012) and Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, Lionsgate, 2015)


Gender boundaries, war films, U.S. – Mexico border, women protagonists, counter-stereotypes, terrorism



Women leaders in war movies: Zero Dark ThirtySicario, and gender boundaries. 

War movies are usually considered to be a man’s sphere and seldom show women as key decision-makers or as indispensable members of the armed forces. Two Hollywood thrillers, Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, Columbia Pictures, 2012) and Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, Lionsgate, 2015), offer counterexamples as their lead roles star female characters who play a crucial part in the unraveling of the movie.

Zero Dark Thirthy (2012), US Poster, private collection.

Zero Dark Thirty deals with the post-9/11 American quest to arrest Bin Laden. The main character, CIA intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastaing), is recruited to complete the team that will pursue the investigation. Her ideas stand out because she is convinced that every lead is worth considering, even the most obvious ones. Her data analysis leads her to believe that Bin Laden is not in a cave in Afghanistan but in a compound in Pakistan, in other words, hiding in a far less isolated place than expected since it allows him to keep communicating with the rest of the world. The whole movie is based on Maya’s intuition and struggle to prove that she is right. The attack on the compound is orchestrated at half past midnight (hence the title of the movie) and the predictable success does not make the scenes less suspenseful. The end of the assault is welcome with relief and Maya is rewarded for her shrewdness. One can even feel a bit of admiration for a woman who could just as well have been wrong, humiliating the United States intelligence services.

Sicario (2015), US poster, private collection.

In Sicario, FBI agent Kate Macer’s path is not as fruitful since she is faced with the war at the U.S.-Mexico border, a war that is described as impossible to win. As one CIA agent explains to her, as long as there will be a demand for narcotics from the U.S., there will be traffic and crime. Among the movies that portray the dangers at the border, Sicariostrikes with its accuracy, whether it is the portrayal of violence or of the multitude of people involved. An effort is made to distinguish the drug traffickers from the migrants and the men responsible for the barbarity from their collateral victims. Yet, almost everybody seems to be caught in the cycle of violence, including Kate. Spotted for her skills, she joins Matt Graver’s team (Josh Brolin) on a mission to mess with Mexican drug lord Manuel Diaz. The world she discovers is beyond her comprehension and roughs her up until the end, when she has no choice but to leave. As the most mysterious character Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) tells her, “it’s the land of wolves now” and she will not survive. This illustrates the cynical conclusion of the movie : the war at the border leads nowhere but to the accumulation of dead bodies. The very last scene ends on a series of gunshots in broad daylight in Juarez, showing that any mission will only have short-term results.

Whether it is Zero Dark Thirty or Sicario, the characters have to face a world in which borders are crossed with no difficulty and threats are everywhere. At the center of their dismal stories, Kathryn Bigelow and Denis Villeneuve have chosen female lead characters, a choice they undoubtedly know is uncommon since their plots expose gender stereotypes. In Zero Dark Thirty, in spite of leading the operation to success, Maya’s abilities keep being questioned by her male coworkers : “What do you think of the girl?,” asks one of them. “I think she’s pretty smart.” And as if her intelligence was a threat to them, the first one adds : “We’re all smart.” Maya is actually referred to as “the girl” several times in the movie, which not only belittles the fact that she is a qualified grown woman but negates the possibility that a female can take care of a difficult mission in a war movie. In Sicario, Kate is also labeled “the girl” and told that she’s “not a wolf,” in other words that she does not belong in the fight against the drug cartels since, contrary to her male teammates, she is not capable of bending the rules.

These females are stereotyped as the weaker members and possible liabilities yet, in these two movies, Maya and Kate show that they are much stronger than expected. Their stubbornness and will to make things right counterbalance the lawlessness that men seem to have no problem dealing with. In both movies, they stand for morality and their sensitivity to the horrors of war helps the viewers believe that there is not a total loss of values. Maya and Kate have in fact the same profile : they are both excellent at their jobs and their reputation precedes them. While discussing Maya’s arrival in Irak, one man comments on her character : “Washington say she’s a killer.” While her first encounter with her coworker’s tough torture methods clearly left her disturbed, she does not let the prisoner appeal to her supposed female sensitivity when she decides to interrogate him. Rapidly, she becomes the hardest-working member of her team. Completely devoted to her work, she spends nights going over files and videos to master the smallest detail. Over time, as she gains confidence and proves her proficiency, she does not hesitate to set things straight with her superiors, convinced that she is right. Far from discrediting her, her understanding of the situation leads her to become the decision-maker of the final attack on what she was right to believe is Bin Laden’s house. Kate Macer is just as tough. The very first scene in which she appears shows that she is a skilled FBI field agent capable of facing the most horrifying situations. In Tucson, Arizona, she leads her team in the raiding of a house in which dozens of mutilated corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden in the walls. With dexterity and courage, she shoots an armed enemy before he can unload his gun on her. Later, during a meeting in a Homeland Security building, her superior reveals that it was only her fifth mission.

However, in spite of their skills, Maya and Kate are always set aside because they are women. Maya uses straightforward aggressive sentences to be heard as if she wanted to be more manly : “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this, and I’m gonna kill Bin Laden.” But until the end, men treat her differently. Even after the mission is over and Bin Laden’s body is brought back to the base, she does not get congratulations. She stands in the background, alone, and men stare at her. Kate is also sidelined in several scenes. Contrary to her male partner, she never gets answers whenever she asks. Graver, who in terms of characterization corresponds to the cliché of the tough and hardheaded American cowboy, makes fun of her being “a rookie” and treats her as such : she is supposed to act as a liaison at the border yet, he constantly keeps her in the dark. The exchange of looks between the male characters reveals that they want to remain in control. They only tell her the truth – that they needed her to circumvent the law because the CIA cannot operate without an FBI agent – after an hour and twenty minutes through the movie. The most blatant proof that they do not consider her their equal is when they use her as bait : they anticipated that she would make a mistake, and let her bring one of Diaz’s accomplices to her apartment after a night out. Even if Graver had Alejandro follow and save her, he did not even care that she was almost chocked to death. To him, it was a necessary step to attract Diaz’s attention. Oddly enough, a few scenes before, Kate was teased by her partner for not being feminine enough and not wearing lacy lingerie. These statements might come from concern for Kate and her absence of social life after her divorce, one can wonder if she did not take the man home because she had something to prove.

Nevertheless, the movies highlight the fact that, contrary to their male coworkers, Maya and Kate benefit from a strong intuition, which bothers men. Maya’s intuition is clearly an asset and enables her to outsmart her whole team. She adapts to her enemies and even manipulates a prisoner, taking advantage of his lack of sleep and food, and thus mental clarity. Kate also feels that there is more than what she is being told. Her obstinacy to discover what is really going on reveals her role in the movie : she is our eyes. After refusing to answer another one of her questions, Graver gives her a piece of advice : “Just keep watching” and it is as if he was talking to us. A few elements suggest that Kate does in fact understand she is being used but she wants to grasp the complexity of the war at the border and see with her own eyes.

While in Kate’s case, insisting on following “a semblance of procedure” proves to be a risky strategy, in terms of plot, it is necessary for the two women to go against the stream. Kate offers a necessary counterbalance to the cynicism displayed by her male teammates. While driving through Juarez for the first time, she stares at the naked mutilated bodies hung from a bridge. One of the leaders of the operation expresses his admiration for the torturers as it fosters a climate of fear in the city. For Kate, that train of thought is hard to accept and it is the contrast of reactions that underlines the gravity of the situation at the border. The men are not naturally impervious to the atrocities they witness ; the border made them that way. The movie even suggests that they understand Kate’s reactions as if they remembered how they used to feel. Alejandro warns her that the boundaries have moved : “nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do but in the end, you will understand.” He seems to acknowledge a paradox within American foreign policy : while it is necessary to adapt and bend some rules to mess with the enemy, there needs to be people who believe in the maintenance of boundaries. In these two movies, the women and men’s opposite reactions are complementary, with people who face the atrocities and others who rebel against their normalization.

Both women cry at the end, not out of weakness but because of the disenchantment that have befallen them. One would think that Maya would be happy to be given a whole plane to herself to go back home, victorious, yet she is overwhelmed with sadness. Kate is in a different situation since she is urged to leave for her safety. Her tears express disbelief and desperation when Alejandro forces her to sign a form certifying they all acted with due process of law. It is as if a different meaning of the warning she heard could be interpreted for both Sicario and Zero Dark Thirty : “Just keep watching” might also mean keep being alert because it is a never-ending war, one in which boundaries and borders do not make sense anymore. The characters of Kate and Maya stand out, by their righteousness and perhaps by their idealism. They may not be wolves, they are lone wolves, set on a quest and doomed to leave alone. They are both strong, sensitive, shrewd and intuitive characters the viewer can identify with. In the end, Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario show that women are just as necessary in a war movie as men and can be effective leaders.


Emilie Cheyroux is an associate Professor/MCF in American and Film Studies at the University of Toulouse. Her research focuses on US Latinos. Interested in the way cultural events can contribute to the deconstruction of stereotypes, she works on the network of Latino film festivals in the United States.  In terms of film, she mainly works on documentaries, especially Immigrant Rights Documentaries. She is also a member of the SERCIA and organises the Film Studies Workshop at the SAES annual conference.

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