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.
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.
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.
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 ideal...at 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.