Monday, 21 January 2013

Why did I do it? (What did it get me?); on Zero Dark Thirty and its inability to earn my love

A few times each year a film comes along which I become impossibly disinterested in reviewing. It’s any string of reasons from not having anything momentous to add to the conversation to just feeling lax about discussing the film generally. Zero Dark Thirty was one of those films this year where even as I did have things to say they all seemed decidedly subsidiary to the larger arcs surrounding the film’s release. I am, of course, referring to the vociferous back and forth ensuing on either sides of the American political sphere considering the film’s use of torture. Even as I’ve scuttled across twitter and the blogosphere trying to avoid the conversation it’s been so ceaselessly publicly denuded that I suspect I am as knowledgeable as I would have been had I sought it out and I kept dithering on the right entry-point to assessing my thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty, not just re torture but re…anything. I would prefer to ignore it completely, but I fear I cannot.

To qualify, the “torture” debate/kerfuffle/hullabaloo seems overstated but not exactly iniquitous because the film slickly opens with the telling “The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events” which points to the potently journalistic style of filmmaking Boal and Bigelow are working towards (more on that soon) and although I’m trying as much to keep the external conversation (between many persons) about Zero Dark Thirty removed from my internal conversation (between my many selves) on Zero Dark Thirty the toxicity of the discussion on the film has, unfortunately, revealed things I wish I’d not been forced to consider about the impetus behind the film. If there’s any “one rule goes for all” in cinema, or any art form, it’s that what’s included is essential and if this “actual events” presentation opens with a scene of torture use it would seem that torture is important to the narrative (forget if it’s condoned or not). In keeping with the initial claim of one in search of facts I hoped that the creators would hold their ground and say this happened. Instead, the subtle shift behind the film moved from “this happened” to “this is a work of artistic fiction” suggested. Of course, Zero Dark Thirty is a feature film so of course it is a work of fiction, I am not a dullard. But, when the initial introduction to your film is an empathic statement of its truthfulness the waters are already muddied.
I include that preamble, ah yes, THAT was a preamble, to qualify that inasmuch as the torture debate has grown to unnecessarily behemoth size, a conversation on torture seems unavoidable if a film that claims to seek facts over fallacy devotes much of its first act to showing its use and relative import. And even as the film remains staunchly apolitical (more on that, too) the non-committal reaction to the explicit existence of said torture seems like a slippery slope in deigning to pronounce that torture is not explicitly approved, it is not really disproved either. But, as I said, that entire argument is already talked out. More importantly, I’ve already neared almost 500 words and not even considered the weight of the review I plan to write.

If you slogged through my disparate thoughts on the film and torture it stands to know that you’re familiar with the film’s thrust. Between the time of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the capture of Osama Bin Laden there was a ten year search to find the mind behind al Qaeda. Zero Dark Thirty is the fictionalisation of that search. (Yes, despite the claims on either side of the pond the film is fiction, and it’s safer in all aspects to assess the gamut of the film on its effect as a work of fictional/cinematic particle.) The audience’s entry point into the situation is a young CIA operative, Maya, who over the course of the film becomes stolidly determined to capturing Bin Laden. In the first scene she appears composed but still uncertain of herself, by the time the credits roll she has accomplished her task. Now what?

Even as Maya is resolutely the driving force behind the film’s narrative it’s difficult to consider the film as her story. That opening nod to the film being “account of actual events” is an immediate acknowledgement of the style of filmmaking will be. Its style is somewhere between documentary and straight drama and the technique – occasionally with knotty results – is impressively rendered here. The most effective technique inherent in journalistic style films is the impact it has when things go dreadfully awry. There are two impressive pieces in Zero Dark Thirty. A mid film sequence where an operative realises that a planned meeting has taken a turn for the worse is excellently rendered and the much talked of final raid sequence is, perhaps, more impressive. Bigelow, along with her sound and visual team, keeps the tension taut over time and steadily guides the audience through the moments with a fine knowledge of when and how to thrill. It is significant, though, that these best of moments of the film would be just as impressive without any back-story to them.

Movies are called thus because they are moving pictures, but unlike visual art pieces context is always essential for film. A brilliant film scene will be brilliant on its own, but it should take on more profundity within the narrative it rests and the telling lack of profundity is wrested from the film’s persistent disinclination to emotion. I need to stress that film’s craftsmanship is remarkable and it’s clear that Bigelow and company were meticulous in their pursuits, in that regard at least. But, the film itself is stolidly observational. Why tell stories on film? Movies are movies, they are not real life. We want them to resemble real life but we don’t want them to be real life. And, more importantly, we do not want them to seem like hard-news. To go beneath the surface would betray the film’s tone and style, but betrayal of the journalistic style in search of a more profound experience seems to me something of meritorious worth. If I seem to be placing too much emphasis on the emotional requirement of a good film (although, of course, tastes vary and we have different barometers for responding to films) forgive me; but, by thrusting us into the chase for Bin Laden and not giving us a specific reason to care unsettles me as a film audience member. For, by doing this, Bigelow and Boal seem to be falling back on the “concept” of their film and not the merits of the film itself.

....more on how the journalistic style becomes problematic for me....
and on the inscrutable Maya....below the jump...

Even as the last act succeeds on the strengths of its style why should we care how we reached their in the first place? The film never qualifies or substantiates the ten year by way of two hour chase we’re on. We come to the film with our knowledge of the events and it’s an easy choice, but also a lazy one. Although miles above in terms of pure technical filmmaking aspects how does Zero Dark Thirty’s insistence on us being invested in the drama “just because” differ from what my peers call the emotionally manipulative ways of tear-jerks which ask us to sob simply because a person we have not learned to care for is struck with a terminal disease? This is NOT the news; the film shouldn’t function as a follow-up article to cap off a series of reports. And opening the film with the audio of the September 11 attack feels….awkward. I would argue against myself and say the context to caring for the finale raid is in the form of the red-maned Maya but when emotional context must emanate from such a cipher I feel cornered.
Propelling a narrative with an inscrutable character is not an unfathomable, or essentially problematic, cinematic trick but along with the film’s steady journalistic style and relentless anti-political stance it becomes…an issue. I might argue, but I’d only be making inferences, by suggesting that Maya’s inscrutability is an easy way for Bigelow and Boal to avoid tipping their hand in either direction. Maya, we know, is an amalgamation of persons who searched for Bin Laden over the years and by making her so lacking in specificity she is a fine symbol for a myriad of things – the drone-like way that CIA operatives feel (against the snazzy way they are typically characterised), the soul-robbing result of too much focus on your job, even the perseverance of the countrymen. So, she cannot show expressly individual signs other than a value for hard-work. An admirable trait, but…. Do we need for her to be fuller? I don’t know if we need to, but the film’s choice of narrative suggests that we should. When the climax comes and the body-bag is opened, notice that the camera remains on Maya’s face. Bigelow seems to be telegraphing a key indication to us – the climatic resolve is not to be found in finding Bin Laden but in Maya achieving her goal and the moment plays out like a misstep for me. Not because I wanted to see the corpse, but for this moment to work in any way the audience needs perspective. If our take-away from the moment should be a sigh of relief for Maya accomplishing her goal is it fair to have things play out in a journalistic style that defiantly avoids making us – truly – invested in Maya’s inclinations?

I recall reading a response to Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina recently, along the lines of Wright’s inability to justify the reason for a new adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel. As much I appreciated that film I decided it was a fair avenue of criticism. Any piece of art work needs to validate existence – the why of the piece must remain palpable. Where does the why of Zero Dark Thirty emanate from? Its epigraph suggests that its purpose is to uncover the truth….except, the creators have quashed that by insisting its fictional underlying. What then? It does not provide crucial insight into the ten years prefacing the capture – how can it when it insists on a journalistic style and an adamantly anti-political stance? In a scene just before that deservedly trumpeted raid finale Maya is asked what happens when they reach that target house. She utters some variation of “find the fucker and kill him”. No one asks why, not the characters and not the film and for all its seamless technicalities I don’t think it’s unfair for me to feel cheated when the filmmaker is unable to demonstrate that why, too. Context is not forthcoming from the political aspect and with its journalistic style the necessity of not choosing a side is obvious, but Boal's screenplay does not even seem concerned with acknowledging the existence of sides to be taken. Again, this potential issue can be explained away the CIA's own disinterest in political issues but when something so momentous seem to be unfold without even a slight nod of consideration for its implications not just politically, but globally the insistence on observation over involvement leaves me feeling detached.
Perhaps, one may argue, that final shot of Maya is the why that pulls everything into its place – but what then? The entire 150 minutes have relentlessly shown me a Maya disinterested in the emotional, by choice, can I now invest in her emotion at the close? Should I? Why? I feel that these questions cannot be answered after the fact and I suspect her tear-stained face infers the obvious – dogged dedication to anything is soul-crushing game. When films leave you to infer it is not something to impugn. But when the only sliver of emotion or context depends on such inference, I waver. Tell me why I want to shout out to Boal and Bigelow. I know they cannot hear me, though. I am also sure they would not really care. They seem to be ultimately disinterested in the why, too. Lucky for them, they have created a well constructed how in the form of the film.


Obiter dictum:
Am I still talking? Oui. Sorry. Two things, I know that the review reads in such a sour register despite the generally positive grade both because I’m in a sour mood upon writing it and because sometimes call it expectation / a victim of hype / or just general coincidence sometimes a virulently competent film can leave you feeling disappointed when it promises more I’m always looking for more, and I want everything I see to be amazing.

Second, and more tenuous. I know that Jessica Chastain’s work and her celebrity in this race towards Oscar has taken on the Chastain and Bigelow as a feminist role with her Maya as evidence and that’s all and good because, really, which tool would be against feminism in any form? Do I object to female focus dramas. Surely no. (Have we met?) What has rubbed me very wrong about this move, though, can be encapsulated in Chastain’s BFCA acceptance speech where she cheered on Bigelow for allowing her to play a character not defined by her male counterpart. Still, we’re in well and good territory even as some parts of the interwebs have been holding this up as evidence of how every other actress this year has given a subpar performance because their character was defined by a man's mind (I will not lie, the argument has explicitly incensed because Weisz’s turn in The Deep Blue Sea came under fire). Why Chastain’s words and that narrative for Zero Dark Thirty annoy is because it suggests that stolid misanthropy is something to cheer on. In this film era, yes, women as leads are too often relegated to male props. But when the final moments of Maya seemed tinged with regret is it really insulting of me to say that Maya’s life yearns for perspective even if from a dreaded man? No, I don’t want her to be “defined” by a man but if the theme I extract from this film without emotion is that work and work alone is a dogged master why cheer on this tale of a woman doggedly attached to her work alone? Again, a minor issue but as that becomes Chastain’s platform it…subtly begins to make me feel the slightest bit queasy. If that narrative must be used, make a fine female focused drama with an appreciation for its character's female inclinations. Every film with a female lead working irrespective of her men is not a platform for the feminist least, I think not. For, in keeping with the film's disinterest in emotion, her femininity seems an afterthought and not an essential.

There, I am done.


Nick Prigge said...

Whew. I'm worn out. That piece was as exhausting as the film itself (I mean, of course, exhausting in a very good way).

I am actually at present working on a lengthy piece that will go up around Oscar time as to why Maya was my favorite character in the movies in 2012 and so I'd prefer to just let that piece do most of the talking for me in regards to that topic. But that's interesting regarding her "not defined by her male counterpart" speech, which I hadn't heard. That certainly had nothing to do with why I loved the character (I guess that had not even occurred to me) and sort of wish it had not been brought into the mix. They just can't NOT rile people up.

I would argue that the film DOES show why. I don't think they EXPLICITLY hammer home the why again and again, but I think by opening with those messages from 9/11 (a risky proposition) is a way of underscoring everything to come. THAT is why the next 150 minutes exists.

And I also thought the scene where you see Maya and the other two watching Obama on 60 Minutes say American does not condone torture and torture was not used, etc., and the three characters do not even REACT, as if this is just the standard company line, WAS taking a side.

I think the film does these things, but it does them quietly and quickly. I could go on. But like I say, I'll talk at length about this in other avenues. And either way, this was a helluva piece. Bravo.

movies said...

quite interested to see action movie based on true events.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Where to start? "The torture debate." Largely irrelevent. It happened. It is part of the mix. To not include it, and the protagonist's hardening to it whould be a lie. A prettification of the circumstances. Is that what the "anti-torture" folks who decry this a "despicable" movie want to present? I find that argument hopelessly ...well, dumb.

The "9/11" tapes. I think it worked more effectively than showing "planes into WTC" shots (which WE have become hardened to) because those tapes ARE real, the people we here are suffering. It makes 9/11 personal (as it is for Maya).

The whole movie is about what a goal oriented focussed person goes through emotionally to accomplish their end-game. "Maya" loses the emotion she would feel naturally, then takes on emotions anathema to the fact-gathering process, wigging out at the lack of action on the bureacracy's part, then comes back, after the task is done, empty—what she is crying for, though, is up for interpretation. I appreciated the movie, but was not moved to think it a "great film"—I didn't feel this about Argo, either.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick thanks for the word of commendation. one of the worse things about being so frustrated in this is being unable to partake in he love so many of my peers have.

your comment about the obama moment could suffice, but i feel as if so often the "side" bigelow takes is ambivalence which i find increasingly more problematic as the film wears on.

i'm curious to read your piece on chastain because i'm especially miffed that i can't partake in the effusive praise for her and while i'd love to see her rewarded for being j-chas, i don't want her rewarded for this performance.

yojimbo i feel it doesn't work because the rest of the film does no depend on that opening so for me it becomes a case of bigelow having that easy entry-point to make the incidence in her film weighty without actually creating tension within her film.

Michael Scott said...

Great piece. I too was taken aback by the film's non-partisan stance. I think it works for the most part but it does leave the film open to attack. Yes, like you have pointed out, it opens up the question of the film's purpose, but it also puts it in the firing line from every angle.

The representative "stance" on torture is a prime example; don't show the torture and you're blamed for cover up, show it and you're blamed for its promotion.

While I think the act of not taking sides has its place, I also think it diminishes the film to a degree.

On top of all that, by not taking a *overt* stance, Bigelow and Boal's underlying politics are revealed, if not consciously, then at least sub-consciously (no film is ever completely apolitical). Whether this is more damaging, as some have posited, I'm yet to decide.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Okay, now everybody's starting to make stuff up...I think, maybe, the participants in this discussion should see the film again.