What we saw (and heard) at Zero Dark Thirty!


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:”
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.
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:
THE RANGER’S COMMAND (continuing directly):
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.
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.

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):
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.”
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’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.


  1. ZDT may indeed be about girl power, in the usual Hollywood fashion. It may also be true that the filmmakers don't care about torture. Or care far more about ticket sales than torture.

    But torture and the threat of torture is depicted, in this film, to be the source of *the* crucial piece of information leading to the shooting of Bin Laden. The film also claims to be based on first-hand accounts -- and, presumably, accurately ones.

    Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, Glenn Greenwald, John McCain, Diane Feinstein, Ed Asner et al., the sublime to the ridiculous -- take note, you fools! Your concerns are silly and irrelevant, because, "frankly", Somerby was confused by the chronology and thinks ZDT is more concerned with cleavage than the issues of our time.

    This site has always been touchstone for solipsism, but this one takes the cake....

    1. Yes, and fools rush in to offer up their claptrap in response. Thanks ever so much.

      Horace Feathers

  2. Having seen the film several nights ago and making two assumptions as I went along
    -- 1) that Bigelow is an artful enough filmmaker, and 2) that my reaction to what I saw was what she was hoping to elicit -- I left the theater feeling that the 'message' of the film was that the quest to kill Bin Laden was (by the time of his death, if not well before that) essentially and finally close to meaningless, a matter of ashes in the mouth -- something like, if it had been done, killing Sitting Bull for Little Big Horn.

    As for your "theme of the determined 'girl,'" while I certainly can see what you mean, I felt that Bigelow's judgment of Maya in that respect was equivocal -- that Maya was "right" in her determination and judgment within the confines of her mission as she and some others defined it but that she also was blind as to its near meaninglessness and/or strategic irrelevance. To put it another way, Maya was all tough and "adult" about a more or less childish quest for symbolic vengeance, though one could say that most Americans shared in that particular childishness. The final scene of a rather blank-faced Maya alone on the cargo plane suggests to me that Bigelow meant for the character to be feeling "so what was the point of all this?" -- though I admit that the tear dripping down Maya's cheek could be taken in any number of other ways. In any case, the tear struck me me as a bad cinematic/dramatic idea, no matter what Bigelow's intent there was.

    1. Haven't seen the movie (yet, and I am not sure I will), but your reading is very much like my son's, which he gave me in some detail today. Just to say, you're not alone in your reading and response.

  3. I haven't seen the movie yet but thought Bob did a fine bit of writing on this one. Regardless of whether he got the point of the film what he did was show me another layer to his abilities and I wish I could write a nice little piece that well.

  4. I wish more movie reviewers would admit they didn't see what everyone else did, couldn't follow a particular plotline, etc. It makes the review more real, and therefore more sensible, to a regular reader.

  5. I really enjoy it when Bob talks film, and our first Anonymous above does not understand that having a certain response to a piece of art does not preclude other responses. I wish we heard more about movies, whether topical or not, because I think Bob is definitely thought-provoking on film.

  6. Thank you for posting this. A very interesting take.

  7. Haven't seen the movie but find your reading of Maya as an incarnation of an American mytheme (specifically, the Ranger's song angle) is very very interesting.

    There IS something distinctly American about the spunky girl (girl-woman). Henry James captured it best of all, perhaps (The phenomenon, and its costs.) Katherine Hepburn played it brilliantly. Downton Abbey reduces the phenomenon to caricature, but there it is, a popular contemporary version.

    This spunk can be carried further: to become the leader, the inspiration through example. If the men won't be men, the girl will, and they will finally respond by playing their proper role.

    But there is a flaw in this crystalline story. Is this another version of the virgin-sacrifice story? (Think Euripides especially. Also certain Afghan traditions: the virgin's bloody banner leading men into battle.) (Maya need not be a "technical" version, btw. Virgin is a more interesting filler/role than that.) I wonder if Bigelow has thought all this through.

    Contrast Emma Goldman to Maya: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

    Anyway, thanks for very thought-provoking discussion of this movie.

  8. Instead of Gun Control, lets call it Assault Rifle Control!

  9. Bigelow to me is an obvious Hollywood hack. I'm beginning to believe that anyway can make a film, like anyone can buy a camera and declare, "I am a photographer."

  10. Chris Kelly also found the determined-girl theme to be central, but his overall impression differs a little from Mr. Somerby's. See his film review entitled "Erin Brockovich for Fascists."

  11. Bob's review finally sent me to see for myself, and I think this Chris Kelly nails it. The (factually dubious, morally ugly) notion that torture was really got Obama is the whole basis of the film. That a sexy super babe was the hero was enough for (most) show biz lovin liberals, but in a sense Bob is right, the movie really had the box office on it's mind.

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