The recent movie “Zero Dark Thirty” not only depicts the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, but it also portrays the current Cedarville alumna of the year, 1986 graduate Jennifer (Matthews) Anderson, who died in service.
Anderson’s character in the film is CIA agent Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle. Jessica is one of the few female CIA agents that the film depicts. However, Jessica is overshadowed in the film by the central character Maya (another CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain) and is shown making repeated mistakes.
The most costly mistake was made at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan when a very giddy, anxious Jessica allowed a Jordanian doctor past checkpoints. She trusted him to tell her information that would lead her to one of the masterminds behind multiple terrorist plots. The doctor insisted that he be treated as a friend and not manhandled. Jessica complied. But rather than being a trustworthy informant, the Jordanian doctor was a suicide bomber. Jessica and several other officers were killed that day.
Wes Baker, a journalism professor who had Anderson as a student, said Anderson was portrayed as a “bureaucratic wonk” who was going with the perceived knowledge of the time and did not actually have much knowledge of al-Qaida.
Although the tragic event at Camp Chapman took place in real life, there are complaints as to the way Anderson’s character was portrayed.
Jim Leightenheimer, a broadcast professor who also taught Anderson, said that she was always a bit of a leader. But he did not see that in the character in the film.
“I didn’t see the seriousness of Jennifer in that character,” Leightenheimer said. “I thought the portrayal of Jennifer’s character was pretty flippant to be Jen.”
Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., a CIA veteran, said in a Washington Post opinion piece that the filmmakers wrongly portrayed Anderson as less ambitious and serious in an attempt to build up Chastain’s character.
Baker said that the character Maya, played by Chastain, would have been a more accurate portrayal of Anderson.
“Maya worked and worked and worked all day,” Baker said. “That was the kind of student Jen was. She was very tenacious.”
Baker cited the story told by Anderson’s husband Gary that is featured along with Anderson’s photo on the Alumni Relations section of Cedarville’s website:
“From his (Gary’s) car, he spotted her in downtown Cedarville during frigid weather filming with a VHS camera for a class assignment,” the story said. “He was impressed even more so later when he learned she was there at least an hour after he saw her. That tenacity, sparked by her determination and perseverance, became a trademark he admired for the years they had together.”
These determined characteristics are what stood out to Anderson’s superiors as well. In his book “The Triple Agent,” Joby Warrick wrote, “[Anderson’s] superiors saw in her exactly the qualities the agency needed in its escalating war against al-Qaida: leadership skills, mental toughness, enthusiasm, ambition and an unquestioned mastery of the subject matter.”
“The real person was an exceptionally talented officer who was responsible for some enormous intelligence successes,” Rodriguez wrote in the Washington Post, “including playing a prominent role in the capture of al-Qaida logistics expert Abu Zubaida in 2002. Her true story and memory deserve much better.”
Rodriguez said Anderson was emblematic of the terrific officers who worked in the Counter Terrorism Center.
“I doubt I would be telling you her name today expect for the fact that on Dec. 30, 2009, she was continuing the fight against al-Qaida by serving as chief of base at a CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan,” Rodriguez said.
It was at this base that Anderson, six other agency officers and a Jordanian intelligence service liaison were killed by an al-Qaida suicide bomber.
Rodriguez said in his book “Hard Measures,” “To the very end of her life, she was leading the fight against our murderous foes.”
Anderson was a 1986 Cedarville graduate. She majored in broadcast journalism and political science. She is survived by her husband and three children.