Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tradecraft: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

9/11 and the War on Terror are still fresh wounds in American discourse, so it should be no surprise that Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, caused a controversy before anyone had really seen it.  The concerns were thus: it's too soon, it's tasteless, it's pro-Bush propaganda, it's pro-Obama propaganda, it's a violation of classified info, and it promotes torture.  Over at the MUBI Notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has written an excellent piece on the film and the reactions to it, and I'll try not to add anything redundant to the analysis.  Shortly before the film was released, the consensus seemed to be that Zero Dark Thirty is a work of impeccable filmmaking, but dangerous and dodgy historical value due to the way it handles the controversial issue of state-sanctioned torture. But I don't think either assessment, of the craft or the politics, is a sufficiently nuanced appraisal of the film.

So far, ZDT has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews and, minus a snub for Kathryn Bigelow, is considered a major Oscar contender.  Time called it a "police procedural on a grand scale", which is true—much of the movie goes by in a dense, engaging cluster of information—but it is also a revenge movie on a grand scale.  And the best revenge movies are not just about the act itself, but how the hunt takes a dehumanizing toll.  (Think Munich, or, in a slightly different way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  ZDT, which centers on CIA agents in and out of the field, indicates that in some sense this is what it's going for.  One agent quits torture because it's starting to get to him, while the main character (Jessica Chastain) more or less puts her life on hold as she monomaniacally devotes herself to a hunt that few of her coworkers seem to believe in.  At the end, the success has left her rudderless and confused.  And here's my main issue with the film as a work of craftsmanship, because Kathryn Bigelow is undeniably a talented director of set-pieces.  The "enhanced interrogation" that begins the film and the real-time raid that ends it are as good as filmmaking gets: gripping, expert, harrowing.  But does she ever really sell the main character as a woman obsessed?  Characters comment on her (that she needs to find a life/get laid), but do we ever feel her obsession?  I'm left with the feeling that Bigelow is not as strong with psychology or atmosphere, which are exactly what the middle section of the film needs.

On the whole, Zero Dark Thirty is a much stranger and more curious film than it gets credit for.  For instance, what are we to make of the fact that Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation, an actor whose natural goofiness makes him best suited for comedy, is cast as the face of SEAL Team Six?  Or that Jessica Chastain's character is sometimes given strangely "teenage" affectations?  The treatment of her, and the way she acts, waver between serious docudrama and badass action movie ("I'm the motherfucker...", etc.).  And how should we feel that the hunt on bin Laden's compound, an event whose implications deserve serious reflection, has now gotten its own Map Pack in Medal of Honor?  In the end, Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping film by any standards, but it may be far more useful as a look at film genre (and how film genre mixes with history) than as a dramatized record of the War on Terror.  And this is simultaneously the root of the controversy and why I'm willing to do my best to see passed it.  The sooner everyone accepts that "true stories" on film should never, ever be taken as a substitute for journalism, the better.

As for the torture controversy, the film's stance has become almost a Rorschach blot.  The film begins with a half hour sequence of torture, including humiliation, sleep deprivation, and water-boarding.  Many experienced and qualified people have looked at the placement of those scenes and determined that, according to film, torture got us key information.  Others, including myself, walked away with a different impression.  And the sheer brutality of the opening scenes—a thirty-minute gauntlet that's a far cry from the dark titillation of something authentically right-wing, like 24—makes them too hard to watch for it to be any sort of endorsement, just a sad, unflinching journalistic observation that yes, this sort of thing happened.  It may indeed be too soon.  The ending is a crossroads with no indication of what's in any direction.  As with all open wounds in public life, the debate will go on.

4 out of 5 stars.

Zero Dark Thirty is currently in theaters, competing at the Golden Globes, and is the #1 movie at the American box office.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Capsule Reviews: Oscar Nods Edition

In honor of the Oscar nominations that were announced this morning, a few capsule guides for the contenders...


Life of Pi

A visual marvel, yes, and reportedly even more wonderful in 3D, but how's the film on the whole?  At first, I was worried it was going to be a Zen Tuesdays With Morrie, which it sort of is, but it ends up in more complex, ambiguous, and surprisingly moving territory. (2012 is truly a year for films about the role of art/stories in our lives).  The necessity of a seemingly thankless framing device doesn't become clear until the end, but the moral is far more personal than preachy, nuanced rather than pedantic, and for that reason it has stuck with me. When my roommate asked if it was worth an $11 ticket price, I said $8.50. That must count for something. 4 out of 5 stars.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Buzzy as hell ever since its big wins on the festival circuit, Beasts has gotten credit (which it deserves) for being something different than the normal Sundance film, and I have to applaud its weirdness, analog effects, and strong cast.  In large part, this is what American independent film should be: not small, relatively off-beat studio films, but acts of low-budget ingenuity that make something out of modest resources.  On a technical level, Beasts is bewitching, with an excellent synthesis of camerawork and music and an insanely magnetic child star.  But the bewitchment is relied on too heavily to cover shaky writing—the dialogue sometimes goes flat, while most of the characters scarcely distinguish themselves—and when you get to what the film is actually saying, you run into problems.  Despite loving modernity, I'm always up for movies about the battle against it, but if that's what the movie is going for, the pre-modern world never looks that good, and the modern world never looks that bad.  And so the film's central moral (about poor people in New Orleans who refuse help so they can keep their dignity and freedom) feels disingenuous, unearned, and not thought-out, like an inside story written by an outsider. 3 out of 5 stars.


A Royal Affair

If the title "A Royal Affair" sounds like a blank template for the costume dramas that always come out this time of year, you're not far off.  The film is the true(ish) story of the mad King Christian VII of Denmark, who, urged by his radical physician, enacted a series of controversial liberal reforms, all while the physician was sleeping with the queen. The whole thing has a flat Masterpiece Theatre vibe (with space cleared for tasteful sexiness), and it's a bit of a bummer that the Academy has chosen to give it a Best Foreign Film slot over so many more interesting international contenders.  But it has its moments, particularly towards the end.  The last 20 minutes are more interesting than Christian VII's Wikipedia page, which is more interesting than the rest of the film. 3 out of 5 stars.

Film Still 

Silver Linings Playbook

Okay.  The acting is excellent, and David O. Russell, who becomes a better director of human chaos simply by being less chaotic, gives it more craft than a comedy about a bi-polar sports fan and a bi-polar widow would otherwise have.  (One of the joys of the film is the way it captures the dynamic of a family where everyone talks over one another, and I have to give props to any director who gets laughs from Chris Tucker by having him be eerily restrained). But throughout the charm of it all, I kept thinking: are we still doing this?  Making quirky-yet-safe comedies about misfits who bond over the course of a narrative that gets more and more predictable as it goes? And then I wished that we, like Bradley Cooper's character, could move on. 3 out of 5 stars.