A Hora Mais Escura Critical Thinking

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I don't know what this film is doing - and that uncertainty is its main interest. On one level it is straightforward enough: from the opening voices of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to the killing of Osama bin Laden the film follows the C.I.A.'s pursuit of bin Laden. In its detection and pursuit this is a thriller narrative, but it doesn't work the way a normal Hollywood action movie does - I certainly failed to be engaged. The characters, for instance, have little existence outside of their narrative functions and I found it difficult to have any emotional response to them. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is the central figure: if we respond to Zero Dark Thirty as a thriller she will be our identification figure, but she has little psychological existence or emotional life: there is the section with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and the beginnings of a friendship is suggested and when Jessica is killed this provides Maya with the motivation to continued the pursuit (now it's personal), but her behaviour doesn't actually change: we are just pushed to sympathize with her a little more. And while the final assassination scene is often called a tour de force, without any emotional engagement I found it murky and slightly confusing in its detail. But there was a suggestion of irony at times: the Americans, for instance, tell the children everything is O.K., although the soldiers have just killed the children's parents. And then, of course, there are all the early scenes where they torture the prisoners to extract information. Does the film just presume we are fully behind the C.I.A. because of the sympathies we bring to the film? In which case the film is an apologist for torture. In the first torture scenes Maya seems emotionally uncertain, but she later seems fine about it (her only real character development): if she is our identification figure I presume we are also supposed to get used to it. But if we are not emotionally engaged we can just think of the film as showing two opposing power systems, the C.I.A. and bin Laden, both murderous and coercive, both morally bankrupt - if we respond in this way the film is a cold experience, but I'm still left wondering what it is doing. As a thriller narrative bin Laden has the role of villain: he is the master criminal, the source of all evil: there is the implication, for instance, that he was behind the 7 July bombings in London, but that was not the case - in the real world bin Laden had limited influence once he was in hiding and his assassination was largely a symbolic act or an act of justice, but didn't have any real impact on curbing political Islamic violence: the central narrative of Zero Dark Thirty is dishonest...which maybe implies that it is little more than a thriller endorsing all the actions of the C.I.A. and I am trying to find uncertainties and moral questioning where there isn't any. Finally the film is unsatisfactory however we respond: as a thriller endorsing the C.I.A. it fails to engage and depends on the audience coming to the theatre emotionally supportive of the actions it shows, but if we try and find a critique of the C.I.A.'s methods the film is uncertain and confused. As it stands, Zero Dark Thirty's only real interest comes about because it is a failure.


If you want to be entertained by the torture and murder then by all means go to this movie … but don't think it's real in the aspect as to this being the means used to capture and kill a terrorist.  This was another case of CIA lies, supported by the film industry, to get weak-minded Americans on board with the idea and concept of torture.  Torture of this nature does not work, those being tortured will only give up or make up information that they think the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the infliction of pain.  Every American should be ashamed that we paid nearly 100 million dollars to two Air Force psychiatrists [or psycho-christs], to use methods of extracting information that have been proved for 150 years not to work.

Both Bush and Obama knew where this man was, he was only killed in order to silence the information he had on payments made by America, thus wasting trillions of US dollars that could have gone to fixing our infer-structure, schools, and veterans, instead of supporting an endless war that we should not have been involved in.  All of this has now been proved true, making this move a bit of fictional trash that Americans have accepted as fact.

America's lies are never-ending, and I for one feel ashamed to be an American in these times, where truth is all that we have, and our nation is nothing more than what we were told communist nations did to their people, which may be true, nevertheless, America is now a member of that club.

This movie is a fictional piece of fabrication … avoid it.


I'm torn between giving this a 3.5 or a 4.0 star rating. The script, direction are both really good. Jessica Chastain's portrayal of Maya is an excellent way to show how such an undestated performance can get under your skin without being too big in its manners. Yes, there are a couple of scenes where Jessica acts like a badass, but most of the film we're shown when she's just reacting to different situations, being vulnerable, and in a way, her character can not show here emotions very often as other women in these kind of films have. That's why I consider Jessica Chastain's performance to be an excellent performance, and very deserving of that Oscar nomination.

The reason why I can't seem to justify a 4.0 is because of The Hurt Locker. The former is almost a better film in every single aspect. And while Zero Dark Thirty is very very good, it seems a Little bit slower in comparison, almost to the point of seeming off as a knock off of.  
Both films are really similar in a lot of ways and they both share a lot of common ground... Bigelow was in the same state of mind for both films, so even though in the end both films are really good, The Hurt Locker just came first, and seemed and looked really fresh when it came out. Zero Dark Thirty didn't look like a lot of films in exhibition at the time either, but we had The Hurt Locker to compare it to.

So, even though I have to rate it 3.5 here in RYM, in reality I'd give it a 3.75 rating. Jessica Chastain's performance's the reason why you have to watch this. She showed a lot of promise in some of her earlier films, but promise's been realized in Zero Dark Thirty. So if you're looking for a reason to watch this, Jessica Chastain's just reason good enough to give this a chance. A good film, either way, you will find. How much you'll end up liking it, that's really up to you... but that you're going to watch a good film, you can surely bet on that.


Liberalism has often been criticized (rightly, in my opinion) for for its unwavering emphasis upon means rather than ends, procedures rather than goals. As Carl Freedman puts it, in his great account of Richard Nixon:

Liberalism begins by abjuring positive social policy in favor of a formal proceduralism, pragmatically trusting that the application of a certain set of rules will “work” in the sense of yielding the fairest attainable results. But such results are absolutely precluded by the initial liberal move of waiving the question of justice: for justice is a social goal with positive, determinate content…

In other words, liberal proceduralism is concerned that actions must be conducted “fairly,” and not at all concerned with the question of whether the outcome of the action is actually fair. If fairness or justice is a Kantian regulative ideal, then 20th and 21st century liberalism is obsessed with the “regulative” aspect in and of itself, to the point of entirely forgetting the “ideal” which is what really matters.

Liberal proceduralism is one aspect of the “instrumental reason” whose annihilation of true rationality Horkheimer and Adorno warned us of two thirds of a century ago. And if anything, this proceduralism has become even more pronounced today than it was in the mid-20th-century. It has become the nearly unquestioned basis of all aspects of government and social life. Everything from the “reforms” that are currently decimating the US educational system, to the way that American foreign and military policy is conducted, adheres to a strictly procedural logic. (In a full social analysis, we would have to say that there is in fact an end in sight: the further accumulation of capital by the tiny minority that already “owns” it, and the exacerbated dispossession of the “99%” in the US itself, not to mention the much more severely disadvantaged global poor. But of course, this “end” is not publically avowable. And as Marx long ago pointed out, the “end” of capital accumulation isn’t really an end or an aim, since it has no goal in view aside from its continuing exacerbated expansion. On the largest scale, capitalism is itself a “liberal” process of proceduralism without any additional or external aim).

I think that it is because we live in such an overwhelmingly “proceduralist” society that the genre of the *procedural* has become so ubiquitous in television and film. This genre used to be known as the “police procedural,” exemplified today by (for example) the ever-popular CSI group of TV shows. But procedurals have also become the staple genre for some of our most interesting film directors. Thus Olivier Assayas gives us a procedural of terrorism (Carlos), and David Fincher gives us procedurals of detective work beyond the police department (Zodiac) and of corporate strategy in the age of the Internet (The Social Network).

And this, to me, is the genius of Zero Dark Thirty. When I wrote before about Kathryn Bigelow, I noted that her characteristic techinque as a director is to immerse herself, and us, in the element, or environment, in which the story takes place (night in Near Dark; the seashore and the waves in Point Break; the realm of inner-psychic-life-as-virtual-reality in Strange Days; and the desert in The Hurt Locker). I also noted that The Hurt Locker marked her move to the genre of the procedural, in order to convey this elemental reality (which seems not to be “political” only because it is, in fact,the necessary precondition and container of the political).

Well, perhaps this is because I am such an unregenerate auteurist, but I find the same principles at work in Zero Dark Thirty as well.

Zero Dark Thirty is the ne plus ultra of proceduralism, its ultimate expansion and reductio ad absurdum. It’s all about the well-nigh interminable process of searching for, and then eliminating, Osama Bin Laden. The premise and initial impetus of this process is of course the mythological demonization of Bin Laden, as the ultimate culprit responsible for Nine Eleven. But in the relentless proceduralism that the film presents to us, this goal or rationale is abraded away. The torture which the film has become controversial for depicting is of course part of this. But so is the process of painstakingly correlating irrelevant information, the accidental discovery of leads in years-old records, the repetitive tracking of the vehicle of the suspected courier, the endless bureaucratic meetings at which officials seek to decide if the information is valid and what should be done about it, and above all the military operation in the last thirty minutes of the film (has military action ever been depicted in the movies with such relentless a focus on operational techniques, in a manner that is utterly devoid alike of the horror of war and of the glory and heroism that are so often invoked to justify it?). The goal has been so absorbed into procedural routine that the ostensible climax of the film, the actual killing of Bin Laden, occurs offscreen; and we barely even get a glimpse of the corpse, zipped as it is into a body bag, which is to say treated entirely (and literally) according to Standard Operating Procedure.

The film makes a sort of feint by implying that its real subject is the passion of its protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain), who continues to pursue the search for Osama when everyone else has given up on it. But her obsession is itself entirely contained within, and articulated by, the proceduralism which is her job as a CIA analyst, and which seems to be the only world she knows. Every potentially dramatic action in which she finds herself (bombings and armed ambushes included) is drained of drama, and subsumed within proceduralist routine. Every affect, and every reason for doing what one does, is sucked into a black hole. This is why Maya is so emptied out at the end of the film.

We are immersed into an overwhelming environment in Zero Dark Thirty, just as we are in all of Bigelow’s films. But in this case, the environment is the numbingly anonymous one of Big Data, of the numbingly repetitious accumulation of “information” (whether by torture, surveillance, physical search, or collation of records), and of instantaneity (the annihilation of duration) mediated through video screens and telecommunications technologies.

As I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, I found the relentlessness with which all this was depicted almost unbearably intense. I’ve never seen (or heard) so powerful a depiction (or better, I should say,so powerful an enactment) of entropic dissolution and decay. All meaning, and all feeling, was draining away before my eyes and ears, without even the prospect of any sort of negative finality or conclusion. I realize that this weird inverted intensity won’t appeal to everyone; it’s the reason, I think, that many people I know simply found the movie tedious and boring. (But such differences of response are of course, as Kant knew, beyond argument).

In any case, Zero Dark Thirty embodies the truth of liberal proceduralism as an organizing principle of all governmentality and all social life today. Embodying and testifying to a truth in this manner is not the same as offering a “critique.” In this sense, it is perfectly true that the movie does not offer any critique of our government’s systematic use of torture. It is also perfectly true, at least in a literal and banal sense, that (as the filmmakers have themselves defensively claimed) the movie doesn’t “endorse” torture either. But I think that to have an argument on this level is to miss the point. Critique is important, but it isn’t everything. It might well be argued that, at this late date, even the most accurate critique doesn’t accomplish very much; it is itself too much part of an all-too-predictable procedure. Embodying the truth of a situation, as I think Zero Dark Thirty does, has important aesthetic and political consequences, more important perhaps than those that come from making an accurate and moral judgment. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t show us a way out from the nightmare of liberal proceduralism, but it makes this nightmare visible at a time when its sheer ubiquity might otherwise leave us to take it for granted and thereby ignore it.

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