Movie Reviews

The Visual Limits of American Liberal Democratic Internationalism and the Woman Indifference; On Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero (

Initial Quotes:


To take seriously American liberal democratic internationalism, p. 410.


Until the late 1980s, American scholarship neglected to investigate with any comparative framework or historical depth the consequences for foreign peoples and for the international system of the greatest ambition of United States foreign policy over the past century: to foster democracy abroad as a way of ensuring national security, p. 393.


Whatever the differences among them, then, these three paradigms agree on one matter: democracy should seldom (realist theory), can seldom (comparative theory), will seldom (Marxism) be fostered abroad by American foreign policy. The attempt to investigate the impact overseas of American liberal democratic internationalism in terms either of specific countries or with respect to the international system is thus not what a serious person (read exponent of these schools) would choose to do, p. 396.


What is nonetheless striking in retrospect about American democracy promotion in these very different circumstances is how thin the actual conceptual structures were upon which Washington erected its ambitious undertakings. It was as if the Americans were working with pieces of a puzzle whose final composition escaped them, p. 350

zero dark thirty soldier agent contrast

There is a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America… We were, as a matter of fact, always vague, as the whole liberal culture is fortunately vague, abut how power is to be related to the allegedly universal values which we hold in trust for mankind. Fortunate vagueness, he [Reinhold Niebuhr] explained, arose because in the liberal version of the dream of managing history, the problem of power is never fully elaborated, p. 353.


What better indication of the new era for Western historical science can there be than in the successful mating of Marxism with its historical breadth of vision, to a politically centered study of American foreign policy and world affairs?, p. 413.





Visual mass-culture products will be good occasion, not a festive one, for swift application of interrogation techniques on American foreign policy first and foremost and its harsh, brutal relationship with world affairs typically going begging for good discourse, also filmic, in the home of the brave. Better a little something than nothing at all, then and there will be little intellectual satisfaction and perhaps some perverse pleasure in the thriller. What follows is second chapter to a previous piece of criticism ”The Hurt Locker Shows U.S. Foreign Policy” (The Oberlin Review, April 30, 2010, p. 12).  Past: imperfect. Present: no better in relation to a political film Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow. And the title is military language for twelve thirty midnight hour, which refers to the unsurprising moment of the predictable culmination of the film, the manhunt of the supreme bad guy, the baddest of the baddest, mind you, which happens to be also the normal, standard indeed “natural” violation of international-law regulations by the U.S., exception to the rest of nations by virtue of its military superpower status. Make it explosive: imagine other nations doing it with your citizens apropos national-sovereignty boundaries, extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques, indeed torture, and use of deadly violence, drones and commando attacks with collateral damage. Some of this “shit” hits you in the face with Zero Dark Thirty. One thing is the film and studies of it. Another thing is the “muck and stink that sometimes go into the effort of keeping this mighty country of ours intact and safe” as Bruni says, and there’s got to be some irony in the exalted phrasing since such “effort” happens to be “ruthless cost-benefit analysis and some very ugly things to which we should never turn a blind eye.” The all-inclusive first person plural is always problematic no matter how you peddle it in the marketplace of visual ideas (Frank Bruni, “Bin Laden, Torture and Hollywood,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 2012,  ( Yes, Zero Dark Thirty gives us some of that ugliness and my argument is that it does not do it enough, that there is something of a thriller going on around and with it, and it is always important to keep geopolitical matters somewhat separate from the manufacture of the film product and the cumulative effect of the marketing and the defensive declarations of its makers playing cautiously with tautologies (a film is a film) and neutralities of some sort (Bigelow’s declarations about being a pacifist, and how the similarities with the protagonist are not conscious, and the calculated small background of both and how deeply moral and political the film is, etc.). There is big banality about the individuality of the director in question, about her upbringing and childhood declarations, and good looks and artistic inspiration and authorial intention, however carefully modulated, is one aspect. Think of the needle in the haystack against the big tumble between the US and foreign affairs.

zero-dark-thirty poster

Yes, of course showing torture is not condoning it, and torture is morally reprehensible in abstract, and this is only one aspect of other political issues happening in the big terrain of politics called geopolitics. A cruel joke could be to ask Corleone why he tortures, and what do you think he is going to say?, while stupidly forgetting to mention that he also smuggles merchandise in the black market, that he remains secretive about kidnapping, killings, local-government alliances, etc. Same thing with the discourse about the torture promotion or denunciation in the film, which must be put together with other ugly things already in the open, as open as the suspension of civil rights in a democracy in the U.S. enclave of Guantanamo in the island of Cuba. Mostly, Zero Dark Thirty makes a thriller out of this, throwing the woman exception into the equation with a noticeable payback structure of contiguity (black screen with screams of those at 9/11 is followed up by torture scenes, the loss of one female-agent comrade, not quite a friend, makes the focus of the female-agent protagonist to capture the supreme bad guy sharper, etc.). There is here something of the conventional payback, the U.S. playing tough defense, they attacked us first, which is ideological trap of selective Procustrean bed of the geopolitical universe with U.S. as the fundamental force for good in the whole wide and messy world sometimes going awfully wrong and yet stick to the main clause. Zero Dark Thirty, to me, sticks to this narrative and the film fundamentally can be used well for CIA recruits. As written in relation to Hurt Locker, this is mostly about “suck it up.” Playing mischief with the famous song of James Brown, Bigelow’s filmic universe says that this is a man’s world and it would be nothing without a faithful woman out there in the same violent world.


Scan the conventional images and try to get some good images of American violence out there and a feeling for geographical discretion. Parse the grammar in the written press and try to see good handling of the uncomfortable language of “extraordinary rendition,” and “state terrorism.” Silence is thick. So it is good to see some in Zero Dark Thirty. It is, at least to me, beyond doubt that Bigelow makes her film name in the vicinity of military fascination, with or without the calculated statements about being (a-)political, or neutral, and how deeply moral the movie in question is. Call it display of brutal force if you will and around it you can do other things, for example the “woman” factor, or twist, or even tease, and not few will fall for this blindness and insight in relation to the sole woman who got an Oscar award, for directing the Hurt Locker. And there is the doubling in relation to the female protagonist, the CIA operative, being as forceful as she can be within and against a predominantly male universe of tough males and tough nails all about the business at hand with few distractions, the film industry may apply as well. There is, to me, more blindness than insight in the emphasis on the woman difference in difficult contexts of terrorism and its twin sister, state terrorism. As the main protagonist in Zero Dark Thirty says at one point in the film, she is effectively the “motherfucker” who brought the very bad and very foreign guy to the critical attention and within happy trigger-distance of the good guys in the unsurprising end. Here, boys are boys and they do not for the most part mix with girls and these girls (there are at least two, including the main protagonist, the CIA operative Maya interpreted by Jessica Chastain in an uneven performance) want to be tight knot and bundle in the film complicity of the dirty handkerchief with them. Mono-perspectivism bears this out. This film is Polyphemus’ one-eye, the roving eye of the liberal Leviathan in an early morning raid in a foreign country with a distinct mission that will not stop to contemplate international-law niceties, that is for others. So, let us keep this desired indifference in mind also in relation to the tears in the good-looking face of the female protagonist in the final scene of Zero Dark Thirty which I will cover in the end of this review. Some interchange can happen with the cynical smile of the main protagonist in the bomb suit in Hurt Locker.


I would argue accordingly that Zero Dark Thirty is mostly about the visual limits of American liberal democratic internationalism, which can be claimed to be the dominant Obama ideology of foreign affairs, side by side the stronger normality of “realism,” at least according to Tony Smith. Bruni’s aforementioned article speaks of some initial collaboration between the Obama team and Bigelow’s, and some Republican skepticism, and how the film turns out to be less liberal than expected. I suppose less liberal has to be understood in the less propagandistic sense of the term and it makes you wonder what good liberal and good propaganda would then be, perhaps ask Tony Smith who also keeps his distance from Princeton liberals, in the current times in which we live: and what about a little visual criticism functioning within conventional venues that keeps the whole wide frame of geopolitics under wraps? I think the film remains conventionally liberal in the sense of the Tony Smith’s initial quotes. The cumulative effect is liberal, tough liberal if you wish, and I agree with those protesters who outside the movie theater were handing out flyers transcending the CIA view of the world ( I want to take both, mass-culture visual forms and its ideology equally seriously holding the burning candle of Tony Smith’s America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy (Princeton UP, [1994] 2012). Zero Dark Thirty is mediocre film about such complications that will not go away soon. Smith’s is ambitious and finally profoundly disorienting scholarship in that it remains equally critical of Wilsonian flaws, marks differences with some neo-Wilsonian Obamians against “realism,” and yet the wide world does not emerge meaningfully in relation to the re-signification of democracy not always already in the vicinity of state security (I have written a somewhat detailed piece about it, see “Sobre la Crisis Oficial de la Política Exterior Estadounidense en las Primeras Décadas del Nuevo Siglo” (Nuevo Texto Crítico,  2010, Vol. XXIII, No. 45/46; pp. 15-39). Some of this remains ideologically significant in Zero Dark Thirty and in a terrible fashion.  Zero Dark Thirty shares the same ideological universe as American liberal democratic internationalism.

Zero Dark Thirty - Jessica Chastain

And it is within and against these limits and limitations that we must operate, at least occasionally, whether popular visual culture or more minority enclaves of the cultures of historical scholarship. Smith wants to occupy a revitalization of the position that puts the U.S. as cause of democracy promotion in foreign parts, as though the venerable name “democracy” was ipso facto immediately understood by everyone and needed no exegesis, much less comparative studies and area-study relations, also as though the cause-effect could not happen differently, always with the U.S. as cause and the rest of the world as effect, and pause for a minute at the disequilibrium in the magnitude in the equation, and you may perhaps arrive flat-out in grand fashion, call it xenophilic, to the possibility that exotic literatures and foreign languages and cultures may indeed also as well educate the democratic sensibility of the natives over here. There is absolutely none of a scintillating, titillating foreignness in both films by Bigelow, which remain Americanist in all (bad) senses of the word, thus comparable to Smith’s closeness of the “idealist” neo-Wilsonian wing of the American mind.


The distinction of idealist and realist schools of thought may lose compelling force from a certain critical distance that puts national security within larger political frames. Difficult to say where Bigelow’s artistic vision lies here and whether it really matters in the production of visual thrillers. Growing into the job, Maya gets the job done. That is what matters. I would argue that this is fundamentally the message of Zero Dark Thirty. And you may grit your teeth and the interpellation is accordingly, and are you down with it? I do not have to tell you that this is a horrendously complicated matter to handle publicly in the current moment in the U.S. The film helps pushing the inquisitive cart a bit further, a liberal bit further, with some lights and shadows, light art and darkness, which may be an awful lot if you happen to look at it, film and world, from a rigid all-American and unintelligent American-only world-island. You will agree with me that there is an awful lot of that of this thick peanut-butter jingoism sandwich in the popular culture and academic culture with realist and idealist modulations.


Tony Smith, still a solid, respectable scholar of latitude and ample vision not automatically hijacked by automatic state interests, underlines the inherited vagueness and the thinness of American liberal democratic internationalism, which is a very good step towards self-criticism. Yet, his core appears to remain on national security –isn’t this the same one in Bigelow’s military films?– and therefore on state structures accordingly, not quite put out there significantly to air. There is some “air” in Zero Dark Thirty but perhaps not enough and I am willing to grant my reader the tremendous limitations inside the U.S. about these matters. Discourse is thick and soldiers defend your freedom and try to deviate from this narrative in public and see how far you go. So there is some deviation here, but not much. . Tony Smith’s surprising final question in America’s Mission as included before is about the possibility of mating “intelligence” and Marxism, and he provides a list of mostly American names (p. 467). Is this incongruence since he provided shortcomings of previous Marxism? But he continues advocating the Wilsonian vision? Is this provocation towards some daring openness? I can’t really say. And yet it is my wish to put this element of “danger” side by side the limits of such American ideology also defended by Smith near Bigelow’s calculated vagueness, also by the producer and writer Boal’s, apropos the rather mediocre film Zero Dark Thirty. This mediocrity constitutes our contemporaneity whether we like it or not mostly in the U.S. Let us not leave it alone accordingly.

Tony Smith America's Mission


Zero Dark Thirty is Visuality of Imperial America.


Zero Dark Thirty is visuality of imperial America with the relative difference of the woman exception, director and protagonist, within if not against a mostly male universe of film-making and film-making about state violence at least in the last two films Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The genre is quasi-documentary, but without pushing the boundaries. There is some investigative reporting and some perhaps exceptional access to intelligence units, but nothing in my opinion that can cause major upheavals apropos major narratives. The emphasis is obviously on contemporary events, almost chasing the headlines of the chase of the most wanted. Hence some Hollywood superlative must be assumed ever so naturally. Why else the focus on the manhunt of Bin Laden at this juncture in between the two terms of Obama, one may legitimately wonder against what type of landscape of vision, perhaps erosion of the U.S. ideals, even Empire, erosion of a Eurocentric teleology of modernity or erosion of an Euro-American political economic power, which are two dimensions, too big for the film in question to handle. Yet, Zero Dark Thirty is, in essence, concrete truth on the ground; forget big geopolitics. This is about the attempt of the protagonist to push the state machine to get the bad, and it is symbol of badness, and the attempt is to make it a thriller, an action movie, always scrupulously from the perspective of the goodness of Empire, inevitably with a few bad things attached to the endeavor, but again since there is structural under-developed badness of bad guys out there, filmically speaking, there is no counter-point to add to the intersecting lines of goodness and badness. That is part of the thrill of Bigelow’s film-making. And you are asked to join in with or without second thoughts. So, yes, please, bring them all with you.


The gist of the message: whatever it takes. This is close-up camera-angle follow-up of U.S. intelligence officials without the need to do big geopolitical flights of fancy. The film centers on Maya, the camera lingering on her white alert, focused and concentrated face in front of a computer screen, the lovely red-hair against the skin or the shirt or the shoulders, pursuing information, getting acquainted with torture procedures, holding the position, toughening it out, never getting any fun, nothing but mission accomplished surrounded by the guys. Woman is good catalyst of the goodness of the mission in Zero Dark Thirty. You will see previews during the American-football playoffs and the images will be of special forces playing horseshoe and of the final nighttime raid on Bin Laden’s compound. She is therefore something of a cheer-leader to the military mission and here the explicit political language in the film is redolent of American lazy lip. No ambiguity: spectators get to see the scenes from the perspective of U.S. soldiers. The night time raid has a game quality to it. And you know the ending.  The very bad guy is barely seen when he is already fallen, and captured and taken in some bag, a piece of fabric here, a piece of beard there, a fast glimpse at the nostrils. No evil eyes, much less language and being a 29-year-old Sikh Londoner called Ricky S. Sekhon helps if you play it (“Being Bin Laden,” This “evil” is very conventional Hollywood genre of the barely developed human alien dimension vividly on display, but fleetingly so. The raid has some messy quality, helicopter goes down, children and women are shot, but the cumulative effect is one of mission accomplished. Maya, almost like an angel, supervises the dirty deed, from the distance. The soldiers slap each other upon the return and the “girl” –she is addressed as such— is the one who verifies the identity of the “catch,” kept off-camera for the comfort of the viewers, and the official who is nearby is thus confirming the identities on the phone to POTUS. Dirty deed is done: fundamental message of Zero Dark Thirty.


Now what? There are several points. White supremacy is one and the adjective has to be understood in the same way as the latest Census. Filmic white element is dominant feature fighting against a non-white dimension, and the second film is identical to the first, the geopolitical color line white and American and perhaps also Western by implication, and who doubts that this is the conventional edifice of our visual culture entertainment of explicit political nature. Zero Dark Thirty does not move an inch further, no internationalization here of perspectivism, thank you very much, for example in the torture scenes, the dealings of the protagonist, or the final raid, or culmination, and the point of it is that we have to approach such encounters from the standpoint of whiteness always, but also of state officialdom and of Americanness in dangerous geographies and there is no attempt at any exploration of any political bit of information that may cause some self-reflexivity (zero soliloquies and precious little dialogue that gives more latitude or greater context to the heroine, who suffers the death of a comrade). There is zero perspectivism of the other side of the state structure so to speak. It is utterly immaterial. There is no curiosity to explore the foreign geographies of human endeavor that rise up to challenge such sophisticated state machinery. Zero Dark Thirty narrows down and naturalizes, i.e. individualizes, and even feminizes the state terrorism of state structures. There is torture but there is also the nocturnal raid into another nation’s national sovereignty, and one can add extraordinary renditions, detentions in undisclosed locations, commando activity, drones, etc. It must immediately be underlined that the term “state terrorism” remains uncommon term and “un-American” even among your smart college friends who took advantage of liberal private education in the arts and sciences inside selective pockets of privilege in the contemporary U.S. and who doubts that the visual misery of Zero Dark Thirty has to do with no daring to speak a stronger visual  language in the conventional American idiom precisely at the historical and social high point of intense exception, call it Carl-Schmittian if you wish. The America of Zero Dark Thirty is the only game in the global town and it is all work and officialdom visually speaking and its vague, self-doubting and even occasional remorseful mood is also self-serving self-pity, retroactively feeding its brutal isolation from a rich universe of multiple perspectives on these horrid deeds.  Americanism here is exception, and a thriller of one, to the theoretical universal applicability of international-law regulations. Allegorically speaking, the red-hair, white-beautiful and workaholic young female protagonist seating alone, mission accomplished, in the big military plane taking off to where?, with tears rolling down her cheeks: Bigelow’s Obama’s America doing awful things out there? But it can mean other things. Relief, release and outlet: I finally did it! I am a strong girl and I am out of here! And even “fuck them,” the pronoun having a few candidates (men, the enemy, the hell of others, all those opposing my wishes)! And why should you bite the emotional bait and emote along those female tears in the end?


Or are you going to privilege the “woman” solidarity card? And how would this work? It would be, for example, truly obscene to pick and choose the “woman” feature in a context such as Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s rendition flights  by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson (Hoboken, New Jersey: Melville House Publishing, 2006) includes at least two, a “Sarah” and “a white female with glasses, 5’6’’, short, blue eyes” who takes photos of those tortured and who could be our stand-in for Maya, a generic gender type of forceful dedication to the tough mission in question (pp. 26-8). Zero Dark Thirty seeks your complicity with Maya: no ambiguity here. Do you think we are meant to empathize with the lives lost in the raid? Are these grievable lives inside these frames of war thrill –I am recreating the title of an excellent mediation by Judith Butler– in the ideological frame of this film? What is the hierarchy built in? It is easy to see. Start putting the features besides “woman” therefore (young white American woman in the military doing covert operations inside a predominantly white male social circle of relative power and privilege, etc.).


One more time: Bigelow’s declarations along the lines that showing torture is of course not the same thing as endorsing it is of course right, but it is so, side by side her calculated no-pronouncements of the conflicts at large, for all the wrong reasons in the context of her own film in fundamental coherence with the previous one, Hurt Locker. As Zizek has written, imagine how we would react to calculated gestures of neutrality if there was a brutal rape scene of a (white) woman in foreign parts and the director claimed neutrality in the filmic approach, play with gender pronouns for greater effect and intensity (“Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power,” ( News of a brutal rape in India made it to the international headlines during the release dates of the film. Imagine statements of scrupulous neutrality about undesirables (pick your most odious group) expressing themselves forcefully. So, one must consider the tense climate in the U.S. for showing such material, the understandable self-defense mechanism by the director and the producer, particularly when attacked, who in essence deliver platitudes about multiplicity of perspectives, and generic repudiations of torture in the abstract and a calculated neutrality and vagueness about large geopolitical issues not filmed and left discursively for a better time and place but not here and now.  There is something of a thinness of discourse that is quintessential to the film, subtracting discursivity as it were, and the director’s explicit framing of the film as though “[we] were working with pieces of a puzzle whose final composition escaped [us],” and I am recreating Tony Smith advisedly, changing the directionality of the pronouns, hitting home so to speak, to illustrate better the ideological thesis of the fundamental liberal complicity at stake here. I am not suggesting any kind of cheap pedagogic moralism in matters of art and politics. Yet, Zero Dark Thirty remains in the end, to me at least, unfortunately vague in the liberal sense of the term. Bigelow’s vague treatment of the problem of power, and grotesque abuse of power at that, happens not to merit a fierce interrogation either, and thus the whole topic of (state) power remains, oddly enough, oblique.


Zero Dark Thirty is thus about the quintessential bildungsroman of the single young woman wanting a piece of it. A dutiful Cinderella story –and what is foreground and what is background?– in which the protagonist cannot “have fun” after all? Is there something of a sacrificial insinuation –hard-working white American woman being put down by the necessities of the law, strategy and the transformations of the state in a Hobbesian vision that would have pleased Philip Bobbitt ( And how fast do you think we are going to leave behind all those dark faces and bodies speaking in foreign tongues and clad in burqas, etc.? The most dynamic scene in the film has to do with the subterfuge of covert agent donning burqas. This scene was selected for previews of the film that show well during football-game breaks. The marketing of Zero Dark Thirty has an upbeat quality like a bunch of guys throwing a horseshoe, or a football, in a beach-like, desert location out there. There is something of an attractive, rough, disheveled, beard-look to the special-forces men. There are there for you, fighting for your freedom, doing what it takes, no questions asked, going into the compound not knowing who will be inside. You want to join them and be a man with them. Tellingly, there is one poster-like scene with Maya in dark glasses smiling amused at their pranks.


Viewers are thus meant to participate in US-official proceedings and join in and stay in the room and shout at the prisoner to behave accordingly and to tell the truth. Maya learns fast, like a little girl telling the weaker guy that he should tell the big guy in charge what he wants. This is the torture scene. When there is confirmation that he will never get out of this situation, why bother cover the heads, let that red-hair shine on you. Yes, this is all work ethic –also in the torture chamber– and no fun as when the fellow female agent who is enjoying her wine glass asks Maya if she has already hooked up with the male fellow agent with cute messed-up hair, who was part of the enforced interrogation technique. No, she demurs. She is all business, a steel magnolia, and this is what Jessica Winter highlights about Bigelow as well (Time Magazine: “Art of Darkness: How Zero Dark Thirty Director Kathryn Bigelow Made the Year’s Most Controversial movie,” Vol. 181, No. 4, 2013). There is something of a cardboard morality of intent, an ideological, political rigidity in the quintessential solitary American heroine with precious little context, society or background. Maya is deliberately kept thin. There is no thick texture to her and this is how Bigelow wanted her role model, not far away from Gary Cooper in High Noon. Our American heroes do not, cannot, will not have fun, neither our unsung heroines. Zero Dark Thirty is something of a small recognition of such heroism, the small or big difference the woman factor makes inside the Bobbittian transformation of the state, and the vicarious enjoyment of a thriller and action movie around awful geopolitical dimensions in faraway locations accordingly. It would have been much more potent to have had less desert and more American geography, possibly close to the island of Cuba, but Paglen and Thompson help us with routes of rendition flights across many other locations. In relation to state, think the other side of pretty. In relation to the sole standing superpower of a state, what do you think?

torture taxi

With or without protestations of the director and the producer, Zero Dark Thirty is a general invitation to a perverse participation in the exercise of cruelty reaching the ultimate destruction of who else but the ultimate evil doer, in the institutional sadism engaging a foreignness kept at some distance while the camera gives flesh to male abuse and keeps the female second banana nearby (announcement that women could serve in combat roles just happened, and I am sure that such news will make some happy, perhaps even Bigelow and I have not heard any comments in this regard, I personally hold no fundamental uncertainties that Zero Dark Thirty is embedded ideological combat role for the woman difference on the side of American Empire. It matters little to me if such difference is here big or small. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are recent references and the viewer will likely find like I did that there was something of an overlap between images in the film and other images one may have seen elsewhere about such atrocities and current conflicts in the Middle East, largely kept out of mass-media outlets circulating in the U.S. Just imagine if Maya had turned Lynndie England, and had held a leash attached to the prisoner, had grabbed the balls of the prisoner, had made him do something disagreeable, had used an intimidating dog, had taken photographs of the abuse, had urinated on the sacred book of religious rules, etc. There is coyness here: “our” women are tough but not disagreeably tough, that is for men, and this is clear case of male supremacy informing beginning and end of Zero Dark Thirty. There is water-boarding and yet there is some weird restraint. We are not taking the full scene. The camera is close-up on the face of the prisoner. It would have been much difficult to watch it from some outside observer taking all the bodies interacting in the cell. That proximity of camera angle also wants our participation in what is going on. Using a soccer analogy, we run typically in the film with the ball too close to our good foot and not like good players do which is knowing at all times where their team mates are and who is better situated to receive the ball and keep it running. Bigelow is not that good of a player or a film maker to even dare want to give an ambitious vision of policy, politics and geopolitics (one scene has Obama speaking on television about Americans not torturing people and the operatives dead-pan). I would expand this dead-pan quality, with or without the final tears coming in a second, to cover the entire Zero Dark Thirty as a sign of political vagueness and thinness, call it conventionally U.S. liberal. Maya loses her temper once I think with one superior who does not let her be herself in the pursuit of her mission and this demonstration of character is probably the worst acting on the part of the otherwise competent and certainly attractive Jessica Chastain. No use of religion, profanity, no display of genitalia. Little urban landscapes. Some desert. There is, how not?, hipness to the military action scenes, no wonder preview material, and we all cheer internally almost like good parents when the female agent expresses confidence in the all-male conference room, she is the “motherfucker,” no pun intended, no one laughs, and that she is 99% certain that the bad guy is in the compound, when she addresses the all-male soldiers about the mission. She does not throw a horseshoe, spit tobacco or drink liquor, even fuck, excuse my French, one of those good American men, but she should have. No release. No outlet. No truth? The final tears I have already mentioned could go many places. In this tough context, why should one be forced to assume the final true emotion in the tears of an individual woman? And what is the perspective of the omniscient, exterior camera telling us now? There is an off-camera voice asking where to go. Suggestion: nowhere. It does not matter. Any place but here and here means that foreign location or anyplace but here of gross violation of civil rights and human rights. Rest assured: Zero Dark Thirty is interplay of US-agent perspective and omniscient, exterior camera and never foreign, much less bad-guy perspective.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty


Probably the best thing out of Zero Dark Thirty will be the stir of discourse in the public pot. With the increasing evacuation of critical intelligence in university structures, dramatically so in the foreign humanities, where are they in relation to these matters?, a few good articles can easily be found in various outlets. Predictably, the U.S. ones are the ones more predictable inside the liberal ideological neutrality affiliation, for example, the already mentioned by Jessica Winter in Time Magazine (Vol. 181, No. 4, 2013). There is something of a rigid identity of the “we” –us qua the U.S., and nothing but the U.S., us seduced by the state, but also some woman solidarity, us white American women doing tough things out there against non-white, non-American not directly against women… if I may put it that way– that will not break open and go unhinged sociologically and politically, as it should. A second example: ‘Zero Dark Thirty:’ Kathryn Bigelow Shows us the Things We Carried” by Susan Zakin, seemingly blinded by the sole example of top female accomplishment in the tough Hollywood industry ( And who wants to stick the nose predictably to one national leash anymore? Get out if you can. Compare and contrast with “Dark, zero-feminism” by Zilla Eisenstein, which has more bite (, and even with “Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill’s antidote to Zero Dark Thirty’s heroic narrative,” ( Yes, the heroism remains in the end and we can discuss how much dirtiness goes with it. Yet it appears that our version of heroics in the early 21st Century is more like the hardened effort of a dedicated athlete than anything else. Our time is the time of Lance Armstrong already caught. There is something of a feeling of the “competition” being rigged and politics being very dirty, but we know this at least since Machiavelli’s times. The point is to historicize it and to see how much of it we wish to know and what to do with it once we are in the know. Hence, what I would call the general tone of seriousness of purpose, and the narrow-focus on the female protagonist, in Bigelow’s craftsmanship –typically in close-ups of head and shoulders, much less the whole body in camera, makes Maya look like a studious graduate student– does not press buttons, does not “radicalize” and fleshes out what is in essence a generic type, and hence fails to satisfy visually and intellectually. And what else is different to say about the other characters?


But continue looking, and you will find more freeplay information, still playing off both sides of the English-speaking pond, still in The Guardian. Nothing of it circulates inside the U.S., much more ideologically rigid, still in my experience:  ”A Letter to Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty’s Apology for Torture” ( “By peddling the lie that CIA detentions led to Bin Laden’s killing, you have become a Leni Riefenstahl-like propagandist for torture.” The provocation is well taken. And how endearing does the director come across in the interviews defending her turf?: “Kathyrn Bigelow: Under Fire” ( The defense strategy appears to be not to stir the big spoon inside the hot pot too much. Perhaps we will all be able to do this in a few years.

bigelow in 1989 on the set of her third feature blue steel

Stepping outside English-language circles momentarily, I will end with the disorientations of the otherwise dignified Literature Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa,“Apogeo y Decadencia de Occidente (

¿Ha desaparecido el espíritu crítico en la frívola y desbaratada cultura occidental de nuestros días? Yo terminé de leer el libro de Niall Ferguson el mismo día que fui al cine, aquí en New York, a ver la película Zero Dark Thirty, de Kathryn Bigelow, extraordinaria obra maestra que narra con minuciosa precisión y gran talento artístico la búsqueda, localización y ejecución de Osama bin Laden por la CIA. Todo está allí: las torturas terribles a los terroristas para arrancarles una confesión; las intrigas, las estupideces y la pequeñez mental de muchos funcionarios del gobierno; y también, claro, la valentía y el idealismo con que otros, pese a los obstáculos burocráticos, llevaron a cabo esa tarea. Al terminar este film genial y atrozmente autocrítico, los centenares de neoyorquinos que repletaban la sala se pusieron de pie y aplaudieron a rabiar; a mi lado, había algunos espectadores que lloraban. Allí mismo pensé que Niall Ferguson se equivocaba, que la cultura occidental tiene todavía fuelle para mucho rato.


“Have we already seen the disappearance of the critical spirit from a broken Western civilization of frivolity? The same day I finished reading Niall Ferguson’s last book I went to see in New York Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, an extraordinary masterpiece that narrates the manhunt and killing of Osama bin Laden by the CIA. Everything is there: the terrible tortures to get a confession out of the terrorists, the intrigues, the stupidities and small-mindedness of many state officials and also the courage and idealism of those who complete their task despite all bureaucratic obstacles. At the end of this superb film, also extraordinarily self-critical, the hundreds of New Yorkers who crowded the movie theater stood up and gave it a sound round of applause; some spectators were crying nearby. There and then I thought Niall Ferguson was wrong, and Western civilization still has plenty of wind in its tail for a while” (my translation).


I could not disagree more with Vargas Llosa’s poor film-studies interpretation, which is still ideologically congruent with his major Western geopolitical focus, properly toeing the line of American liberal democratic internationalism. Again, the dutiful seriousness of specific purpose of Bigelow is emphatically not expansive critical visual intelligence of geopolitics. But, what is the purpose, really? And your literary-criticism educational upbringing is asking this question not wanting cheap (American) moralism, and much less a straight-forward declaration of individual intent on the part of the author, which will never be taken at face value. There is, I defend, something horrendously predictable about the manhunt that does not quite bring it up to make it into a good thriller. There was no climax to what had not been a good intercourse and make it as dirty as you wish, politically speaking. The very bad guy, indeed the most wanted by the Good Empire, has no bone, blood, life animation in him. The film avoids the evil eyes. There is a quick glimpse of the bearded chin as he is already in the bag. There is facial hair emphasis all over Zero Dark Thirty and this is some un-American feature that makes the film look a bit foreign, attractive hirsute quality of the special forces included. Yet, the Manicheanism is under-developed and finally anemic and just for a minute imagine the explosiveness of its opposite, the giving of life to the political force of sustained contestation of state terrorism. Foreignness is nothing else but body to be tortured or target to be shot at in the night raid. There is collateral damage in these women and children, but no effort whatsoever to give us a bit of development to any of these challenges to official and institutional, read, state-mediated American national identity as presently constituted (we may wish to remember what the great Raúl Ruiz has criticized about this Hollywood convention, the immensely predictable single-minded pursuit of conflict theory resolution, Zero Dark Thirty is all about this, with the phantasmagoria of the very bad and foreign guy on top).


But the gist of the film is, in hindsight, the single-focus dedication and pure pursuit of the woman, put generic type Maya here. The core is about what the woman wants. Feel good about putting foreignness in the background. And what does she want, we may wish to ask with or without Freud, who also had a beard and moustache and a few things about conscious and unconscious impulses? She wants is to be celebrated part of the state machinery, not matter what and doing what it takes. I feel like going for the exchange Maya and Bigelow, don’t you? Bigelow, and many others with her, will not go further, and probably cannot, pressing the buttons of the Tony Smith criticism of American liberal democratic internationalism with which this article opened up. And how many “good guys and gals” trying to make a living in the U.S. inside and outside the film industry would you say could and would? Unlike bad girls in the film noir era, Maya is no juicy role, cool, calculating gal in a B-picture exploring the dark side of (political) life, who could stick a knife in a man’s back and make him like it, and you bet I get the prose from some colorful dvd jacket. I confess to liking Maya somewhat. I confess to liking Bigelow somewhat. There is strategic coyness and even timidity, also complicity, in Zero Dark Thirty with ominous state structures as though one had to try hard, really hard, and do really nasty things, to get the approval that will not come. For all the woman dimension, there is also rigidity and diffidence, and male-supremacy underpinning the portrayal of Maya, a vagueness, a thinness, almost Cinderella type, making the most out of things and making do in the end since the real deed in the night hour is done by the men out there. Is she foreground and main story or background to the “greatest manhunt in history” as the poster advertising of Zero Dark Thirty declares oblivious of any insinuation of moderation and proportionality? But, contextualization and proportionality, historical cognitive mapping and relativity of the US in the first place, are not the main issue here. The main issue appears to be a relatively banal one: the generic typecast feminization of individual pursuit in a tough, though man’s world out there. In times of interlacing of global boundaries, bring it all home, man’s world also in here. My praise to Bigelow is largely for not smiling too much and yet I am not with her liking her wholeheartedly. Her film-making does not win me over to her side visually, much less politically. Repetition: given the increasing evacuation of critical intelligence inside university structures, almost anything would do, a thriller, an umbrella, a sunflower, the baking of a shoe instead of steak.  What does not kill you will have to feed you. The next one by Bigelow will be nicer.

The New York Film Critics Circle Awards

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,