REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2012
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
While to me this film was no more or no less affecting that your average advocacy doc, I was impressed and rather surprised that Ken Burns, he of the nine-hour-long, assiduously non-controversial PBS productions about great wars, baseball and dirt, could find it within himself to help his daughter and her partner to make a film with some actual purchase on contemporary life. Way to go, Ken. I hope this relevance thing rubs off on you. In any case, here is my review for the Nashville Scene. You'll find that, like the film it discusses, my notice is pretty much sober as a judge. Not much leeway on this one.
If there's one film-critic watchword that I get shit about from my non-cinephile friends, it's when I describe a movie as an "interesting failure." While they almost always hear me out very politely, and concede that I am making some very cogent points about whichever film we happen to be discussing, many of my buds (and my lovely wife, in fact) simply can't get behind the idea that movies can be fundamentally bad and still worth seeing. This makes perfect sense from the point of view of a non-specialist. Bad films, or even just films like Killing Them Softly, which fail to realize their painfully obvious ambitions, are highly instructive in terms of the pitfalls and potentials of the medium, and the general state of the art of cinema. It's unreasonable to expect that an intelligent but casual moviegoer, curious about film as one among many cultural pursuits, should necessarily have some kind of aesthetic program, or macro-view of the state of the field. Rather, genres or even maybe auteurs are more likely the cognitive sorting boxes such a viewer might be expected to use. Or, even more likely, each and every movie is taken on its own individual merits. Seen in this light, failures are not interesting. They are disappointing, since whatever specific project the film's makers may have attempted will not necessarily be gauged against other, similar efforts. This is a level of sympathetic viewing that cannot be expected of the non-cinephile. This is not to say that such resonant, ambivalent moments of spectator-response do not occur. But they are rare. I find I have to keep this in mind when, watching Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, an acid-etched allegory faintly masquerading as a gangster / heist flick. That's because I do in fact find its peculiarities and, yes, its failures to be rather intriguing, and at times exciting, albeit in ways I'm not sure the film's makers anticipated. And so it's something of a shock to see that mainstream audiences rejected the film somewhat violently, giving it a flat F in CinemaScore reports.
Part of this, I'm certain, has to do with genre expectations instilled and left unsatisfied, but I'm also sure that much of the reaction pertains to Killing's aggressive clunkiness. It's a film, in part, about low-level bagmen trying to affect a cool swagger and a bad-ass strut, and coming unglued. Likewise, the film itself evinces a strange dissonance, as though it were placing each and every act of violence or tough-guy mob move in tight, itchy quotation marks. It's endemic to the plot, in a way. Cogan (Brad Pitt) is the out-of-town enforced sent to clean up the mess following the robbery of a mob-protected poker game. The heist men -- small-timer Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and erratic junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) -- are put up to it by a local hood (Vincent Curatola), mostly because quite a while back, the guy who runs the game for the Mafia, Markie (Ray Liotta), robbed it himself, then later on bragged about his inside job. So, the thinking goes, Markie will be the most likely suspect in a double-dip. So, the robbery is already based on repetition and simulacrum, the movement away from the original. It's not long before the real crooks are discovered (Russell lets it slip), but Cogan's solution is to kill Markie first. Cogan's contact (Richard Jenkins) tries to dissuade him. He is a middle manager, working between Cogan and the local mob management who, we find, are more concerned with procedure and paperwork than getting shit done. Much to Cogan's dismay, working for the contemporary Mafia is no different that adjusting claims for Allstate or requisitioning factory parts. The mob is a simulacrum of "legit" American business. This point has been made, of course, by The Godfather films, but Killing Them Softly is rolling out a sort of "Eighteenth Brumaire" style reiteration. Coppola was tragedy, Dominik is farce. The trouble is the stark unevenness with which this allegory is unfurled. The poker game heist, shot with a Steadycam in narrow hallways and chilly, gray backroom resembling a claustrophobic bingo hall, is an expert piece of filmmaking. But Dominik's continual refrain of tying the hapless crime and its doomed perpetrators to the 2008 economic collapse is a bold move that simply doesn't work. From Frankie and Russell's discussion in the bombed-out urban corner, under twin campaign billboards for Obama and McCain, to Cogan's final soliloquy over Obama's victory speech, there is a jarring aggression in Killing's "subtext." And this is what makes it interesting. The intrusiveness of the allegorical refrain results in a nearly Brechtian disruption of the primary narrative. (But then, James Gandolfini's subplot as a dissolute hitman serves only to bring the film to a grinding halt.) It's not just that the symbolic dimension of Killing Me Softly "fails." It hovers between theatrical abstraction, on the one hand, and the by-the-lapel B-movie gesticulations of Sam Fuller, on the other. So I come away thinking about all those F-scores, which to me are both comprehensible (this is a weird-ass movie) and totally befuddling. After all, on some level they would have to mean that viewers thought they were watching a movie that, in all sincerity, was attempting to throw down and be gangster. Which, no.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
(I am always very fortunate to have the great Jim Ridley as my long-suffering editor at the Nashville Scene. He is a keen-eyed word surgeon who manages, week in week out, to whip my manuscripts into shape. But even more than this, I am awed by the fact that he has never once complained about the fact that, while I have blown a deadline only once (an email mishap), I have never, even come in at my word limit. I send the poor man these rambling things that are often twice the size that he needs, and sometimes he even makes the room to run them. I am lucky to have such an understanding pair of eyes at the other end of the dropbox. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, however, I really did send him a manuscript that was so much longer than the space the Scene had allotted that he had to cut it down significantly. Here is Jim's fine edit. I've been sitting with this for awhile, and I've decided to post my original full-length review, mainly because it fleshes out some points about Bigelow's film that I think ought to be made by anyone who is choosing to argue against it, but is trying to avoid coming after it with the now-standard (senatorial!) brickbats.)
1. The decision by Columbia Pictures to expand the new Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty, into wide release in the second week of January, rather than before the end of 2012 or even earlier, means that this highly visible film (which has already won several major critics’ awards and is a frontrunner in several Oscar categories) arrives on the doorstep of the general public with a considerable amount of baggage. At this point, it is not really possible, if it ever were, for any reasonably aware filmgoer to buy a ticket, watch the movie, and absorb it as an isolated, self-contained work of art.
2. It had been a stated intention of the film’s producers, once it was known that a film about the tracking, capture and killing of Usama bin Laden was slated for the fourth quarter of 2012, that Zero Dark Thirty would not be released until after the November 6th presidential election. Although it is not clear what impact the makers of ZDT thought their film might have had on the outcome of the election – whether they considered the film as having the potential of being misunderstood as propaganda – they themselves obviously saw the film as being a kind of intervention into public discourse, one whose timing had to be judiciously considered.
3. The film, which chronicles various phases in the hunt for bin Laden from roughly 2003 through the siege on his Abbotabad compound in 2011, is depicted almost exclusively through the point of view of a young CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain). She is fictional, a composite of many CIA employees involved in the massive multi-year undertaking of bringing bin Laden to justice. However, writer Mark Boal and director Bigelow have performed a kind of sleight of hand in creating Maya, and articulating these pivotal events through her cinematic presence.
4. Maya (no last name given) is the attractive, intuitive female side of a CIA apparatus, and her charisma permits, even demands, an unproblematic identification with both the CIA and the hunt for bin Laden on the part of the viewer. I submit that, were ZDT to ask us to offer ourselves up for similar identification with others in Maya’s orbit – say, Dan (Jason Clarke), her “enhanced interrogation” colleague at the undisclosed Middle Eastern black site, or Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), her Pakistan field office chief / Bush era functionary -- we would not slip nearly so easily into the film’s preferred mode of spectatorship. Rather, we would experience ideological dissonances almost instantly.
5. ZDT has already become a popular talking point for elected officials, smug pundits and other self-appointed guardians of our national innocence. Virtually all of these statements, from outraged leftist weeklies all the way to the floor of the Senate, center on one question. Does ZDT make a clear case that the torture of al Qaeda-affiliated detainees provided specific information leading to the location and killing of Usama bin Laden?
6. There are so many answers to this question floating around the contemporary Van Allen belt of bloviation, that I hesitate to add any further air, hot or cold. However, it seems that the manner in which the question has been continually posed has forced us to overlook some equally important considerations regarding Bigelow’s film. Has the Oscar-winning director made a work of ham-fisted pro-Bushie propaganda, or is ZDT a complex, ambivalent work of art that abjures easy answers? I am very much inclined to say, neither. Just on the narrative level, ZDT could be said to depict the transition from Bush/Cheney to Obama doctrine as a kind of “hinge” moment, when the Company’s usual practices of torture are forced to turn a corner into a more technological (and technocratic) form of intelligence gathering. (The tracking of the courier Abu Ahmed, using mobile phone triangulation, is an example of this.) While ZDT clearly depicts actionable intel resulting from enhanced interrogation, it also depicts a CIA that grasps (not without some carping) that its day is done. Maya exemplifies this transitional phase.
7. But focusing on the torture question means we lose sight of these broader stakes, this image that Bigelow and Boal offer us of the “new and improved” CIA. Maya’s charisma, her lack of a backstory, and above all her relentless propulsive drive in one single direction – how to get bin Laden –not only make her the perfect point of identification in a film that, without some finesse, could prove tricky in that area. They also make her essentially a blank slate, and her reactions to different events throughout the film are a kind of cinematic Rorschach test, almost skirting minimalism in their emptiness. The pivotal thirty or so minutes that open the film, when we see Maya enter the camp where Dan is engaged in an ongoing process of torturing and interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), who allegedly wired money to a 9/11 hijacker, exemplify this ambiguous affect. As Dan barks commands at Ammar (“when you lie to me, I hurt you,” etc.) and waterboards him, and then reverts to nice-guy, good cop behaviors, back and forth, Maya is in the background, wide-eyed with a hand on her mouth. As I watched this scene, I saw intensive study on Maya’s face; others, I learned afterward during discussions, thought she was disturbed by what she witnessed. On second viewing, it seems clear that Chastain’s careful performance admits of both readings, and many more besides. She may even be a little excited. She is crossing over, going “through the looking glass,” and all we know is that she feels something.
8. Later on, of course, Maya herself (with the help of a masked male assistant) gets rough during an interrogation. But she is cold and methodical, not a Lynndie England figure who somehow inappropriately enjoys the power that comes with being in the driver’s seat. In fact, Maya’s gender factors into ZDT consistently as a sliding signifier of her unique capabilities, the thing which sets her apart and allows her to gain fresh perspective on the bin Laden problem. It’s not just that Maya is permitted to behave in a petulant manner toward her superiors, something that would get her smacked down in a heartbeat if she were a man. (Her ongoing challenge to her boss [Jeremy Strong] to raid the compound, counting the number of days the CIA has sat on the intelligence by scrawling them on his office window in red marker, is particularly preposterous.) And it’s not just that the film shows her winning over members of Seal Team 6 by flirting with them, in her own chilly way. (“Bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.”)
9. Rather, Maya’s single-mindedness is given strange overtones throughout ZDT, as hovering between absolute professional competence and an almost romantic fixation. We see this in the odd way her colleague at the Islamabad office comforts her when her investigation runs aground (“I’m sorry, Maya. I always liked that lead…”), or when CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandofini) asks her in the lunchroom what else she’s done, for the CIA and by extension her life. (“Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.”) And so, in the very last shot of ZDT, when the raid is done and UBL has been zipped up in a body bag, we see Maya alone, the sole passenger in a military aircraft leaving Pakistan. “Where do you want to go?” the pilot asks, and, having no answer, Maya begins to silently cry. Again, so very much has been made of this final shot, as a tragic dehiscence within Maya’s life following the end of an obsession, or even as a sudden moment of reflection on everything she’s done over the years, good and bad. But psychoanalytically, Maya has lost her object of desire.
10. Does this moment translate into reflection for the audience as well? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. One of the things that the film takes as a given, just as Maya does, is that “getting bin Laden” was always worth it, no matter the cost. Only Bradley, shown to be a small-minded bureaucratic type, intent on “protect[ing] the Homeland” with as little human expenditure as possible, even raises the question of whether UBL is worth Maya’s obsession, or a nation’s. In practical terms, bin Laden had long since been sidelined in the daily activities of al Qaeda, so his assassination was a function of closure. (Bigelow begins ZDT with audio recordings of 9/11, just so we wouldn’t forget, I suppose.) The film takes care to punctuate its bin Laden-centered procedural with clearly labeled, meticulously staged al Qaeda hits (the July 2005 London bombings; the 2008 Marriott Islamabad attack; the suicide bombing at Camp Chapman), as if to indicate by sequence and concatenation that bin Laden is behind each and every one.
11. This is one of the primary lessons that any attentive viewer ought to take from ZDT. While pundits and politicians get wrapped up in whether the film “defends” torture, by and large they are failing to examine Bigelow’s filmmaking as a rhetorical method and as a symbolic form. Torture happened, and we got bin Laden. Did torture give us bin Laden? We’re dealing, of course, with the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, the idea that if Thing A happens before Thing B, A must have caused B. And here is where we are witnessing a collision between our political thinking and Hollywood film style, our favored means of turning complex events into narratives.
12. Many film critics and intellectuals appreciate Kathryn Bigelow because she used to be a painter and has genuine avant-garde credentials, and as action filmmakers go she certainly has a better than average command of cinematic space. The fact that she has recently turned to military subjects is not all that surprising. High-tech reconnaissance devices are the endpoint of Renaissance perspective and its abstraction of lived space into mappable patterns and fields. Nevertheless, her storytelling tends to exhibit a fascination with power, particularly male power, but from an objective distance. On the one hand, ZDT is a kind of blank slate, much like Maya, content to show certain things that happened, without ever asking about their meaning or providing much of a contextual framework. But the forms of action filmmaking inevitably provide their own inherent explanation. The forty minute sequence in which the SEALs raid the bin Laden compound in almost complete darkness is masterful, compelling filmmaking, but of a vernacular sort. The muscularity of the editing and play of white-green light across a pitch black screen, and the tense awareness of jeopardy they produce, help us to cope with images of Arab women being shot, with a soundtrack that combines the ominous minor chords of a negative campaign ad with the undulating wail of a Turkish clarinet. Bigelow holds nothing back. She even shows a U.S. stealth craft blowing up from four different angles, a classic multiple-detonation that would make Michael Bay blush.
13. Does Zero Dark Thirty tell us that torturing our enemies is okay? Again, this misses the larger point. It has been said time and again that the 9/11 attacks that Usama bin Laden helped organize, particularly those on the World Trade Center, resembled some sort of horrible real-life Hollywood action movie. If it was necessary to track and kill bin Laden, and it was equally necessary to perform some unsavory acts to do it, it is perhaps more necessary that those acts, and that killing be depicted in a Hollywood movie that will ascribe to those acts the necessary logic and form, whatever that may be. Point being, bin Laden made his “movie,” and now we have made ours.