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The Heart of Darkness in Zero-Dark-Thirty


That it is a tale grippingly told, which keeps you glued to the edge of your seat even as you know the outcome since its part of our collective history now—that I will cede to Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The film, which opened yesterday on a limited release, is based on a screenplay by Mark Boal, who was allegedly given some inside information and classified documents by the Obama Administration.

What exactly keeps viewers of this disturbing film glued to the screen—no one in the  jampacked 150—seat Jacob Burns theatre where I saw it last night prior to its general release seemed even to be breathing, that’s how still and concentrated the atmosphere in the hall was –well, that’s the question that’s been haunting me all night.

Today is 12/12/12— the day that the first section of the spire that will crown One World Trade Center,  has been hoisted atop the building. It was lifted onto the 104-story building this morning,  proclaiming to all the world that Freedom–American-style individual freedom to be all that you can be, to ascend to the top of the ladder by dint of the freedom of opportunity provided to all regardless of class, creed, color, the AMERICAN Dream, that is–  has won the day, and the forces of darkness aka Al Qaeda in particular and possibly the Islamic world in general—have been thwarted. Those who tried to hurt “us” because they envied us our “freedom”—as the popular narrative of the 9/11 attacks goes—can suck eggs, gnash their teeth and shed tears of rage and frustration, all in vain—for we, as the Freedom Tower symbolizes—have risen again, like the proverbial Phoenix, to once again assert the Might that is America. All others beware.

Beware because the risen tower coincides with the limited NY-area release of Zero Dark Thirty, which reminds Americans of the tenacity that their government—especially the liberal Obama Administration—has  demonstrated in its hunt for Osama Bin Laden, whose evil influence against America and its citizens, while certainly not erased from the planet, has suffered a huge blow and thus been significantly decreased through his assassination in May, 2011, at the hands of US Navy seals sent in on orders from Obama to the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan where OBL was found to be hiding.  The War Against Terror—that euphemism which has allowed the US government—as well as other governments, friends and foes alike , all  across the world following the US lead—to jettison citizens’ rights to privacy, to habeas corpus and due process in courts of law, leading to indefinite detention of prisoners and their torture without appeal etc etc—that “War” seems justified now as a means, no matter how violent and illegal– to an end that we are told is the price of our Freedom.

But freedom from what, exactly? Or freedom to do what, be what? And who is this “we”? The “we” addressed by Bigelow’s film, the “we” that is being interpellated (to use an Althusserian term indicating our subject-status as constituted by the structures of authority that govern our lives and thus “hail” us to acquiesce in the system that rules us every step of the way)—who is this “we” that is supposed to be rejoicing at the “shared” vision of the Freedom Tower in our midst? This is the point of questioning unleashed by the film as I sit watching it at which I begin to break down, to start weeping, uncontrollably, trying desperately not to let the woman on my left in the cinema hall, a “real” American see/hear me cry. A “real” American? What is this ugly thought rearing its head inside my head I ask myself? As a naturalized American, an academic who has lived in the USA for more years now than in my native Pakistan where I was born and grew up, I nevertheless felt “othered” by this film, excluded from the “we” of the audience being “hailed” by the structures of authority and sense-making represented by the film’s interpretive  codes. The “real American viewer” being addressed by the film, is one who by virtue of being sutured into the point of view of the young female CIA operative at the heart of the hunt for Osama, and that of her co-investigator who subjects a suspected Al-Qaeda prisoner  to waterboarding and other tortures in the opening sequences of the film, is one who neither looks like me nor can challenge her students in a course on World Literature to empathize with the disaffected young Muslim radical at the center of Hanif Koreishi’s short story and film, “My Son the Fanatic.” Such an “authentic American” viewer cannot be one—like me– who asks her students to read Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant novella The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which initially elicited expressions of disgust and unalloyed “patriotism” on the part of many of these students when they read the part where the young Pakistani Princetonian feels “secretly pleased” upon hearing of the attack on the Twin Towers; yet, later, many of these same students admitted to feeling something akin to empathy with this young wanna-be American who ultimately turns away from the Wall Street Empire he is ascending fast, in moral disgust against the vapidness and inequality upon which the American dream rests,  and returns home to Pakistan in the wake of the white- tribal  attacks against his “people” after 9/11 that he himself encounters despite his own elite-ly honed cosmopolitanism.  What happens when these young Americans in my classes begin to question the racism, the unmitigated rapaciousness of American capitalism which is a major cause of the unequal distribution and access to goods, income and well-being between North and South, and which has led to the economic problems which are preventing so many young people like my students to even pay for their state college fees, never mind how they will make a decent living once they graduate? What happens when they start humanizing Pakistan and Pakistanis—unlike what they will now see in the film Zero Dark Thirty which shows them once again the stereotypical images I tried all semester to erase or at least to challenge in their minds? Will they be angry at Bigelow or at me, will they question her “truth” or mine and that of the authors I introduced them to–when they (once again) see  images of a dirty, dangerous country called Pakistan where no women appear in public, where bombs go off all the time, any time, a place which the heroine of the film describes as “awful”—where her life is constantly under threat (well duh, she IS a CIA spy)—and where the native” men all look threatening and wield weapons of mass destruction—shooting at will (including at her car—thank goodness for her the car is bulletproof), invading the beautiful Shalimar Gardens under cover of burqas etc etc. Not ONE scene in this film showed Pakistan and its citizens as having anything of beauty, of peace, of the humdum business of daily living and loving, of music and grace and delight in good food and family and fun. Not one.

Added to all this murky business is monkey business—in what I saw as a crucial scene, the tough-as-nails heroine’s initial co-investigator is visiting a CIA “black site” somewhere, and in the compound is a cage full of monkeys. The man in question has just come from subjecting an Al Qaeda suspect to gruesome torture, but in this scene feeds a little of the ice-cream he is eating to one of the monkeys; within seconds, just as he allows his attention to wander a little bit—mirroring the audience’s collective laughter and relaxation at the comic relief of man-feeding-monkeys—snap! The monkey grabs hold of the entire icecream cone from his hand and well…there you are. The monkey makes a monkey out of the man—and of “ us” the audience, a warning , perhaps, that “we” must never let our guard down against the animals we put into cages. Or, as Marlowe, Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness says to his listeners as a warning against the ease with which darkness (native Africans) can overcome the light of Western Civilization (white colonial rule),

Light came out of this river since [the Thames]…but it is like a running Blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the Flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But, Darkness was here yesterday…..

Meaning, that if we aren’t careful, and brutal in

the conquest of the earth, which mostly means  the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves…—then  “we” may once again be “overcome” by the forces of darkness.

The question for me was—who are the “real” monkeys? Just as I had wondered earlier who were the “real” Americans being addressed by this movie, I now realized that I was the outsider, the “fake” American, the “monkey in the middle” of all that is good, pure, unadulterated , machismo-inflected patriotic Pax Americana.

What made this realization feel worse was the fact that the biggest upholder of America the Good was a woman: a strong, even courageous woman fighting sexist attitudes of men in authority in the heavily male-dominated fields of the Military and Intelligence Services. As a feminist, I am always looking for women who are portrayed in the media as smart and capable, without being objectified as body parts. Jessica Chastain certainly portrays such a woman, driven by her professionalism and work ethic to get the job done, no matter what the risk to her personal health and safety. And she is attached to no man (or woman for that matter)—not even a whiff of heterosexual (or lesbian) romance to sully the portrait of the female hero a la John Wayne…only this time, the “frontier” to conquer and tame is no longer the Wild West—Geronimo notwithstanding— but rather, the Evil East. And so the final question for me becomes, Can a Macho, Homeland-loving  Woman be a Feminist and thus worthy of my respect and admiration? After all, isn’t this “right to choose” whatever profession we want a right that feminism has fought for?

And while I struggled for a bit over this particular question, in the end, my answer was clear. No. This character is not an example of feminist heroism, because she stands alone, even in the film. The one other woman campadre she gets to know , another field-operative,  asks her at one point, “do you even have any friends”? Feminism is about forging bonds with other women –and men, and others—across national, racial, class, religious, gender and sexual barriers and borders. Feminism is about imagining—and then building a world based on peace and justice and equality—not war and violence and revenge. It is, in fact, about disavowing privilege in all forms, including the privilege of “belonging” to any one nation, class or creed. Let me end with a wonderful quite from Patricia McFadden, writing in a collection of essays on Feminism and War:

US society has remained a fundamentally violent and intolerant social formation, whose rulers clearly understand the significance of imperial practice for the maintenance of white supremacist privilege and power. And too many American citizens have bought into the justification that war is necessary for the maintenance of their social order, even if their access to the glory of Americana is limited simply to the claim that they are “Americans.” The power of national identity, especially when it is associated with perceived or real expressions of privilege, is in my opinion something that feminists in the USA (and Europe) will have to contend with in order to shift the discourse on war and imperialism.

The white woman officer at the center of this film’s story of imperialism and war, who relentlessly pursues the heart of darkness threatening Western Civilization (remember Gandhi who when asked what he thought of Western Civilization, replied that he thought it was a good idea!)—serves to uphold the social order of a Homeland that is being run by white men in army uniforms and business suits. An African-American president who gives the order for the US seals to land in the compound housing what the woman insists is the elusive OBL, and the woman herself who in actuality was passed over for promotion despite her major role in “landing the prize” target of OBL—seem destined merely to bask in the dubious glory McFadden rightly describes as “limited simply to the claim that they are ‘Americans.’”

Perhaps, then, I needn’t feel so bad about being “othered” by the type of discursive, supra-nationalist patriotism embodied in Zero Dark Thirty. Transnational Feminisms require that we who believe in a fair world without borders, find sources of affiliation in bigger dreams: those of a shared humanity, not the paltry ones of “belonging” to nation-states.

FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a Professor and University Distinguished Scholar in the Department of English and Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University NJ. She is author, most recently, of the controversial memoir, Lahore With Love: Growing up with Girlfriends Pakistani Style (Syracuse University Press 2010; InsanityInk Publications 2011. She can be reached

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University. She can be reached at:

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