Sunday, January 13, 2013

Real Life

In the comments section for this excellent post by Glenn Kenny about the “torture debate,” as I suppose I’m forced to call it, surrounding Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was stirred up originally in a piece by Glenn Greenwald that Glenn Kenny is directly refuting, I left this comment (which has been edited for content, length, and clarity), in regards to not Zero Dark Thirty, as I hadn’t seen the film at the time, but rather violence and morality and perhaps, but perhaps not, immorality in films in general, Taxi Driver specifically, and how critics and film lovers approach and process such material:

Cool, the ending of Taxi Driver is not. Horrifying, it certainly is. But I’m very tired of the kneejerk reaction, when faced with one kind of simplification of that film’s climax, to counter with another simplification coming from the opposite direction. For all the blown-apart hands and knife wounds, is it so easily forgotten that Travis Bickle – not a man to be admired or emulated, as the film does make clear – chooses as his victims men who operate and/or patronize a grimy New York whorehouse that offers to its clients 12-year-old girls? To whom they can, and are even expected to, do whatever they please? And the variety of things they might please to do is laid out pretty clearly by Sport at one point. Schrader and Scorsese didn’t do this on a whim.

Glenn says that Zero Dark Thirty makes him uneasy, and I believe it does. The fact that he loves it at least partly for that reason is a rare reaction. Over the years, I’ve noticed that, among the many positive things a film might offer, one that many critics and cinephiles claim to desire most is a film that challenges their core beliefs and received morality. It’s been my experience, however, both as an observer of people who claim to want this and as someone who claims to want this himself, that this is pretty much bullshit. Not all the time, but most of the time, and pretty much. I’ve seen it over and over again – a film presents a discomforting moral ambiguity, and that ambiguity is absorbed in such a way that all the fuzz and haze that held the two or more points of the ambiguity together is sharpened, for the viewer, so that the film is saying either one thing or the other. Whether the thing the viewer has decided is being said means the viewer loves the film for confirming their beliefs, or hates the film for rejecting them, depends a lot on what the person wanted out of the film in the first place.

This is why I hope to never again hear or read anyone talk about Straw Dogs. Peckinpah was one of the most ruthless purveyors of morally uncomfortable films, and he was never more ruthless or aggressive than with Straw Dogs. It’s almost as if he was specifically saying ‘So you think you want to be challenged on these grounds? Okay. Let’s go.’ The reactions to that film over the years, both positive and negative (‘fascist work of art’ my ass) is a strong indicator that this sort of thing isn’t really that desired at all. And not that I think Greenwald would ever want moral ambiguity in whatever the hell he considers good art, but this is precisely the line of thinking he’s following, right off the cliff.

Now, I would regard it as just swell if I could leave it at that, as far as the aforementioned torture debate is concerned, but now that I have seen Zero Dark Thirty I feel like I’m compelled to address it again, with the weight of experience now upon me. And frankly, I resent that. I resent that some myopic pinheaded dope with a massive forum like Glenn Greenwald can set the tone of the conversation about Zero Dark Thirty before he’d ever even seen it (that’s what Greenwald did, though his stance didn’t shift a millimeter after he did finally see it, which as plot twists go is about as shocking as the guy who’s a werewolf in a werewolf movie turning out to be a werewolf), so that now any time somebody wants to throw in their two cents – which is what I’m trying to do in this post, not prolong this asinine debate – they might appear chickenshit if they decided to hop over that particular landmine, even if the avoidance is born out of a total lack of interest. Which is just about where I find myself. But if Greenwald can, after he’d seen Zero Dark Thirty, stand the ground he staked out before he’d done so, then I should be able to do the same. Because make no mistake, I believe what I said in the above-quoted comment now more than ever. As far as I’m concerned, Bigelow and Boal’s approach to the torture scenes (the torture of captured terrorists by American military and CIA operatives, just in case I need to be clear, which, if the Greenwald side of this whole thing has taught me anything, I just might) in Zero Dark Thirty is an, if anything, on-the-nose illustration of my point. I believe the moral ambiguity at play here was entirely intentional on their part (without believing that either of them condones torture; this is neither counterintuitive nor hypocritical, by the way), and was meant to be absorbed as an ambiguous moral point. Greenwald and others are quite right when they point out that beginning Zero Dark Thirty with real audio clips of 911 calls made by those who died and nearly died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then segueing directly into the film’s first of many torture scenes, sets a certain tone, but where they’re wrong is what that tone is. That tone can perhaps be best illustrated through a kind of dumbass equation: this happened because that happened. Furthermore, over the course of the film it turns out that torture techniques (ironically enough, the very deliberate not torturing of a detainee, but why should we let that cloud the issue?) do yield a key piece of evidence that gets the ball rolling towards the location and execution of Osama bin Laden (oh incidentally, that’s what Zero Dark Thirty is about). But even further if you have eyes in your head and can figure out what happens in movies while you watch them you’ll see that the film’s primary CIA torturer (played by Jason Clarke) begins to not like doing it. I myself, as someone who found it pretty easy to admit the detainee at the beginning of the film was a confessed terrorist, can hardly blame him.
I swear to God. I cannot believe anybody has to tell other people, grown people, what was in the movie they just saw in order to get them to put away the goddamn picket signs and consider for five seconds that art, even art about current events, might have other goals in mind than simply parroting back at the audience the moral viewpoint they walked in with. And really, not even parroting back at the audience – parroting back at you. Al Pacino’s “You fuckin’ child in Glengarry Glen Ross springs to mind unbidden. As I say, I’ve become resentful.

The mild irony of all this is that, unlike Glenn Kenny and others, like Tom Carson, who have written well in defense of Zero Dark Thirty against Greenwald’s slack-jawed self-righteousness, I didn’t love the film. Don’t worry, I liked it – I may have even Liked It Very Much. But quite unexpectedly, the film has about it more than a whiff of the true story as classically told by Hollywood, which, depending on which era is the one being classical, can mean a wonderful display of craft or a schematic, button-pushing exercise. Zero Dark Thirty feels like both, and can’t sail over the rough spots on the strength of its central performance by Jessica Chastain as Maya, the young CIA agent who has spent her entire career, which began fresh out of high school, doing nothing but hunt for Osama bin Laden. Chastain is a terrific actress, what they call “luminous” in Malick’s The Tree of Life and other films – there’s a good reason why she’s been everywhere lately -- and seems like a good and potentially fascinating to lead Zero Dark Thirty, but I think a mixture of Boal and Bigelow’s falling back on Hollywood shorthand and bullet points (see, for instance, the moment where Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, Maya’s CIA chief in Islamabad, drops off a file for her and asks her if she even knows what he wants back from her, and she rattles off with a smirk all the procedures she’s memorized, calling them after Bradley as he walks away with a “Oh boy these precocious young people!” sigh) and perhaps either bad direction or just plain not being seated for this kind of role (in this case, watch Chastain during a scene about halfway through the film where she freaks out on Chandler after he makes clear that his priorities have shifted away from bin Laden, and note all of the what I call “weird actor things” she does with her head) combine to make her appear to be very much playing a role – move my head here for this effect, add a lilt on this syllable to play up the humor…it’s all very mechanical, surprisingly so.
But maybe the problem is Mark Boal, and his script. Or rather, Mark Boal under the tutelage of Bigelow. This is only Boal’s second script after 2008’s The Hurt Locker (he also has a story credit on Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah), but more so than in that earlier Bigelow film I could feel Bigelow’s long history working within a particular form of Hollywood genre filmmaking come through. It’s right about now that I suppose I should say that outside of her recent work, I’ve never been much of a fan of Bigelow. I’m not overly keen on 1980s action movies in general, which is the kind of thing on which Bigelow built her name, and my admittedly meager experience of her work up until The Hurt Locker (only Strange Days and Near Dark, if you’re going to push me on the issue) did nothing for me. I don’t like the “This is cool, right? This is the 1980s/1990s, so this is cool” tone of it all, nor do I like the way such films manufacture the ragtag crew of shaggy fringe professionals who bust each other’s ass and have put lizards on their shoulders and eat from giant sacks of popcorn while explaining complex computer systems to the new guy in the suit. Now mind you, Zero Dark Thirty is not that kind of movie. But bits of that kind of movie seep in, and I can picture Bigelow sitting Mark Boal down and screening a series of her own films and those of her ex-husband, James Cameron, for whom such films are not just everything but the only ting, and telling him to chart Zero Dark Thirty somewhat along those lines. This results in Chastain’s first scene with her first Islamabad crew, and the news-reader spilling out of information from one after another of them – exposition as straining small talk -- so that we know they all have voices, but also allowing Chastain’s New Kid to question their analysis and make them begrudgingly say “Hey she’s not so bad!” with their faces. It also leads to a moment near the end when Chris Pratt’s Seal Team Six soldier telling his buddies, while they’re in the helicopter on the way to storm bin Laden’s compound, that he’s listening to a Tony Robbins self-help tape so his buddies can laugh because what a character, but he’s like no, these are really helpful, ha ha ha but he’s a Navy Seal! This bit has the virtue of being blissfully shorter than the eyeholes sketch in Django Unchained, but if anything it feels even more out of place. Tarantino at least sets things up in such a way that it seems like he can do just about anything he wants, only proving otherwise when he tries something that falls on its face and breaks its nose. Zero Dark Thirty is supposed to be much more rigidly structured and composed. This doesn’t preclude the existence of any humor, and the film does have some genuine, earned laughs, but the Tony Robbins scene is the most blatant example of Bigelow’s predilection for the kind of film I described above blowing a hole in Zero Dark Thirty and tumbling through.

Of course, there’s much in the film that is excellent. Pratt’s verbal, not-fat equivalent of “fat guy falls down” aside, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, which lasts about a half hour or so, is pretty phenomenal. In fact I’d say that at around the point Maya tells James Gandolfini’a “CIA director” (Leon Panetta, I’m assuming) “I’m the motherfucker who found this place,” Zero Dark Thirty was just about on rails – just about – and that counts for a good hour (for one thing, the expository dialogue becomes a lot cleaner in this stretch). Also in that chunk of time we get Mark Strong, as one of Maya’s supervisors confronting the National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) in a White House hallway, angry that the intelligence indicating bin Laden’s presence in an Abottobad, Pakistan compound is not being followed up on more vigorously by the President. In this scene, two men on different sides of the aisle are shown spitting nails at each other in the pursuit of doing their respective jobs well, with each job moving towards the same end result. This is a unique scene in modern American films, I think you'll agree. On top of this you had to add Jason Clarke as Dan, the operative who walks Maya through the CIA’s detainee program, and who is the man who does most of the film’s torturing. This is an outstanding performance, and for about half the film it seems like Clarke is Chastain’s co-lead. The reason he isn’t is the part of Zero Dark Thirty during which Glenn Greenwald must have got up to pee, but anyway Clarke plays Dan as a smart, good man who believes his job is incredibly vital, and he’s correct. In the course of his job he does things that a lot of people vehemently disapprove of, and maybe by the end he does too, so he shifts focus to do another kind of job. Bigelow and Boal’s absolute refusal to comment on him or judge him is perhaps Zero Dark Thirty’s greatest achievement, and Clarke moves through it all as a man we think we can see completely even though we don’t know a thing about him.
However, if Zero Dark Thirty has anything truly fascinating to communicate, the most fascinating message might well be that David Fincher’s Zodiac is possibly going to be quite the influential film for some time to come. Just this year we have two major releases that owe some pretty clear debts to Fincher’s masterpiece, the other one being Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, of all things. From Zodiac, Lincoln borrowed the idea of the procedural structure as a means to depict both a historical epic and a historical snapshot, as well as its use of a large cast of instantly recognizable actors as the solution to a narrative problem (although these days Spielberg casts his movies like that anyway). The link between Zodiac and Zero Dark Thirty is rather more direct, as through the swirl of politics and history Bigelow and Boal’s film is, like Fincher’s, finally about obsession, and finding answers, and closure, and an end to things. Chastain’s Maya is Zodiac’s Paul Avery, David Toschi, and Robert Graysmith all wrapped up into one person, with everybody else in Zodiac transported over as everybody else in Zero Dark Thirty at the junction where it looks like Maya should move on. Not that I thinks she should, but it’s not hard to take their point. Hunting bin Laden, like the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, after a while comes to look like at worst a wild goose chase, and at best no longer as urgent as it once was. Agree to disagree, I guess, and thank God Maya felt the same way, because she achieves the payoff that eluded, and continues to elude, Graysmith. The film goes to great pains to imply – though not to unambiguously state – that they agree with James Ellroy’s claim that “closure is bullshit,” if not on a national scale than at least for Maya. Zero Dark Thirty’s goal, ultimately, is to be intimate, something Zodiac was after too, in its way. Procedures are followed by people, after all. That’s maybe the whole idea, but in the case of Zero Dark Thirty that idea feels like just a way to close out and go to credits, but it’s the lifeblood of Zodiac.


Patrick said...

Just saw it yesterday, agree with many of your comments. Thought it was very good, not quite great, seems to run in place for a while in the middle, once they get that name and phone number, plus the raid, it is really first rate.

Regarding the torture, I thought I detected a slight endorsement, but maybe not. Where I saw this was the clip of Obama playing in the background, everyone suddenly stops and listens when he says no more torture, I wonder if the filmmakers are saying - you can see information was gained from torture, now that isn't available, is it worth it or not, you decide.

That one scene from Chastain, just totally screaming that you mention, is the one glaring spot that struck me as not quite right, I thought they needed to tone it down some, moderate it a little perhaps. One thought I had was that when someone behaves that aggressively towards their boss, it makes it difficult for the boss to reverse himself or it looks like he caves in to pressure.

Dan O. said...

Great review Bill. Zero Dark Thirty is a masterful work of filmmaking that demonstrates the painful and long journey of one of the greatest manhunts in history and that’s what I loved about it so much.