The law of the ranger’s command: Yesterday, eager to limn the controversy, we went to see Zero Dark Thirty.
This is what we saw and heard, and what we didn’t see:
The controversy concerning torture: One of our strongest reactions was this: If we weren’t already aware of the controversy, it wouldn't have entered our heads that we were supposed to leave the theater wondering if torture did or didn’t help capture bin Laden.
Yes, there are scenes of torture at the start of the film. Within the logic of the film, were we supposed to think that those acts helped locate bin Laden?
Frankly, we have no idea. As with many films in the age of “world cinema,” the events which transpire in the film struck us as rather confusing. As we watched, we weren’t real clear on the flow of events—on how we got from one car chase / apprehension / interrogation / deduction to the next.
We weren’t real clear who some of the apprehended parties actually were. As we emerged from the theater, we could never have outlined the chronology of events.
Maybe other viewers could. But in the age of world cinema, logic and detail have given way to worldwide visual language. Car wrecks, explosions and gun battles have replaced meticulous narrative.
That said, the torture scenes at the start of the film do serve one obvious purpose—they make you look (or look away) for the first half hour. They also help define the depth of the challenge facing the main character.
That said, does the film argue or suggest that those acts of torture led to the apprehension? Frankly, we don’t think the film showed any interest in such questions. Truth to tell, we really don’t think the film rises to that level.
That doesn’t mean that it’s “wrong” to debate the film’s depiction of torture. We just don’t think that the film or the film-makers show any particular interest in the questions involved there.
What are the film-makers interested in? There is one obvious theme in this film which practically hits you over the head, although it’s rarely mentioned in reviews or discussions.
The triumph of the determined “girl:” In the second half of the film, Kathryn Bigelow hits you over the head with a rather obvious theme: “The girl,” so described in the film, has triumphed through her determination over the relative lunk-headedness of her male bureaucrat bosses.
For ourselves, we tend to like films which portray young women in such ways. One of our favorite films is My Brilliant Career; it portrays the determination of a young woman to reject the social role which has been set for her. (Our other favorites: Notorious, Casablanca. In Notorious, a devoted young woman is relentlessly scorned by her bosses.)
Zero Dark Thirty hits you over the head with the theme of the deteremined "girl." Toward the end of the film, this theme becomes so overt that it approaches the level of I Love Lucy clownishness. We refer to the scene where Maya refers to herself as a “mother fucker” in her meeting with Washington’s CIA brass. Also, to the scenes where she aggressively counts the days which have passed since some action she has recommended has gotten official approval.
She keeps counting the days with a sharpie, on her boss’ glass door. At this point, the film employs a mallet in service to this obvious theme.
In these scenes, we are hammered with the familiar theme of the rebellious female underling who refuses to knuckle to her male bosses. This is a very familiar theme in modern movies; the theme is familiar to the point of being hackneyed.
In what way does the film specifically refer to Maya as “the girl?” In one of the closing scenes, Maya identifies the body of bin Laden. A male functionary on the phone to DC says the ID has been made by “the agency expert (pause). Yes, by the girl.”
In this moment, we get the perfect ironic conjunction—Maya, who is the film’s most successful expert, is still being described as “the girl.” We thought of the scene from In the Heat of the Night where the Steiger character angrily admits to the Poitier character that he, the southern sheriff, “ain’t no expert” (although the Poitier character is). And we thought that Bigelow was working extremely hard to mallet home the familiar theme of the determined but disregarded “girl.”
For our money, it’s a bit strange to make a film about such serious global-political issues and turn it into a commentary of this type. But this film is obviously interested in this theme in a way that it doesn’t interested in questions about the role of torture or how we should act in the world.
One of the ways this film keeps you watching: This film is long, and it has to keep you watching. One of the ways it keeps you watching is through the use of Jessica Chastain’s beauty.
We don’t mean this as a compliment to the film.
Hollywood has always kept viewers watching by putting good-looking people on screen. Why do people still watch Gone with the Wind? Not because it may deify The Lost Cause, as people kept suggesting in discussions of Django Unchained. People still watch Gone with the Wind today because (trust us) Vivien Leigh is astonishingly beautiful in one scene after another. Less reliably, we’re told that Clark Gable looks good in this famous film too.
There’s nothing automatically wrong with capturing eyeballs this way. For our money, though, Zero Dark Thirty is a bit cynical in this regard. Plainly, one of the ways it keeps you watching is by lingering on Chastain’s obvious beauty. And by the way: As the film moves along, you are rather clearly encouraged to scope out her body too.
Check it out! In the first half of the film, Chastain is constantly shown in unrevealing dress. In the second half of the film, she is suddenly wearing tee-shirts—and it becomes rather clear that along with her overall beauty, she has a conventionally good figure. And then, as Maya IDs the body near the end of the film, Chastain is suddenly costumed in a V-neck tee—and a bit of cleavage appears! In the final scene, riding home in the plane, the V on her t-shirt cuts deeper.
Some will think this wardrobe progression is coincidental. We doubt that. Given the seriousness of the film’s subject matter, we think it’s cynical to capture eyeballs this way. But make no mistake:
The film wants you to bond with the Maya character. To help your relationship deepen, it keeps giving you just a bit more. This is a very old, unattractive game in show business.
Where had we heard Maya's story before: The determined “girl” who stands up to her bosses? This theme is quite common in movies, to the point of being hackneyed. But as we watched the Maya character unfold (or fail to unfold), we realized that we had seen—or heard—this film's story before.
What is this film really “about?” As we watched it unfold, we kept thinking of the old American song, The Ranger’s Command. The song is generally attributed to Woody Guthrie although, to us, it doesn’t sound like a song that anyone actually wrote. (Did Guthrie perhaps just collect it?)
The song describes one of the most mysterious women in American song. As with many western ballads, the singer starts by declaring his intention. As he starts, the singer says he’s going to “teach you the law of the ranger’s command:”
THE RANGER’S COMMAND:Having declared his intention, the singer begins to tell you his story. He introduces a mysterious woman—a great, iconic American figure who is perfectly captured in Zero Dark Thirty by the Maya character:
Come all of you cowboys all over this land,
I'll teach you the law of the ranger's command:
To hold a six-shooter and never to run
As long as there's bullets in both of your guns.
THE RANGER’S COMMAND (continuing directly):Whenever this song began, was the singer really going to the “cold” round-up? We don’t know. But in this passage, the singer has met a young woman about whom he knows nothing, not even her name. So it is with Maya, a young woman about whom we learn virtually nothing in almost three hours of film.
I met a fair maiden, her name I don't know.
I asked her to the roundup with me would she go.
She said she'd go with me to the cold roundup,
And drink that hard liquor from a cold, bitter cup.
Where does Maya come from? Why is she is in the CIA? Why is she so determined in the pursuit of this work? Does she have family or friends? As with that archetypal western maiden, so too with Maya: We learn almost nothing about her in the course of this film.
Another similarity: Like the mysterious young woman in this old song, Maya is very much willing to go to the round-up! Here’s how that original woman reacted when the rustlers broke on her:
THE RANGER’S COMMAND (continuing directly):As Guthrie presented it, that was the end of the song. In a great expression of the western ethos, a mysterious young women rose from her bed with a gun in each hand. Through her courage and her defiance, she memorably taught the men around her the law of the ranger’s command.
We started for the canyon in the fall of the year
Expecting to get there with a herd of fat steer.
When the rustlers broke on us in the dead hour of night
She rose from her warm bed, a battle to fight.
She rose from her warm bed with a gun in each hand,
Said: “Come all of you cowboys and fight for your land.
“Come all of you cowboys and don't ever run
As long as there's bullets in both of your guns.”
We’ve always thought that mysterious young woman is by light-years one of the greatest figures in American song. Today, that mysterious young woman is there on the screen in the unexplained person of Maya, who fights harder and more fiercely than the men around her.
In our view, that mysterious young woman is one of the greatest figures in American song. The ethos she expresses helped define the American west. We’ll only say this:
At the present time, it may not be the perfect way to confront the rest of the world. But a reworking of this archetype lets Zero Dark Thirty keep you watching for almost three hours.
Did torture lead to bin Laden’s capture? We didn’t see the slightest sign that Zero Dark Thirty cares about that. This film seems to care about something else—something we find a bit out of place, given the film’s deeply condequential global political context.
We love films in which young women triumph. The theme seemed a bit strange here.
You can see and hear it sung: Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can hear that brilliant old song.
Joan Baez recorded The Ranger’s Command on a 1965 album. Was any song she ever recorded better suited to her voice and persona?
Just click here. You’ll hear the top pacifist of the Vietnam era praise a straight-shooting young woman.
Woody Guthrie recorded The Ranger's Command in 1944. To hear his recording, just click this. And there’s more!
Apparently, there are only two pieces of film which actually show Guthrie singing. In one, he is singing the money verses of The Ranger’s Command.
Go ahead! Click this, but remember our warning:
The way that young woman settled the west may not work real well overseas. Does Zero Dark Thirty care? We really didn't get that impression when we watched Zero Dark Thirty.