Monday, January 28, 2013

Oscar Watch 2013 - Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is the next movie on our list. I absolutely loved this one, though I have to admit that it really challenged my views on the role of the CIA, the way in which we gather intelligence, and the meaning of safety. Plus, Jessica Chastain is crazy awesome as Maya, the obsessive CIA agent who hunts down Bin Laden, and Kathryn Bigelow was pretty epically robbed for that Directing Nomination.

But first, introductions. Zero Dark Thirty is a heavily researched, as-accurate-as-they-could-make-it portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the years after the 9/11 attacks. So obviously it’s just full of warm fuzzy moments and feel good musical numbers.

It chiefly follows Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, a rookie CIA agent who comes to Pakistan in the early 2000s for the express purpose of helping to track down Bin Laden. While she does work on other assignments throughout her time in Pakistan, which goes up through about 2009, I think, her goal, manic and devoted, is finding UBL (as he is referred to by the agency).

I suppose the cool thing about the movie is that Maya is based on a real person, not a series of composites, but really based on the one person in the CIA who was able to put together a web of information about UBL’s whereabouts and eventually convinced the White House to sanction the raid that killed him. Which is good, I guess?

As a hardcore pacifist (yes, pacifists can be hardcore), this movie was pretty challenging for me. On a visceral level, I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. I want her to find UBL, because she’s a good(-ish) person and UBL is bad and this will keep people safe. On the other hand, I believe firmly that violence begets violence, and that it is never okay to raise a hand against another person. Soooo…issues.

Particularly hard for me to swallow were the (accurate) depictions of the way in which intelligence was actually gathered. By which I mean, the scenes where Chastain, a lovely, sweet looking woman, was coldly torturing detainees. And the later scenes where the CIA agents sat around and complained about the sanctions Obama had placed on torture? Pretty chilling.

But even if I don’t agree with its politics, or even the opinions of most of the characters, I still loved this movie. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to the way it told the story.

For starters, telling a story about a ten year-long manhunt can easily be the most boring thing ever. Most intelligence gathering is the analysis of newspapers, videotapes, transcripts of conversations with prisoners, photographs, records, trying to put together some level of comprehensive data collection. It’s a lot of computer time, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but computers are not inherently cinematic.

There’s a reason why shows like CSI and Bones, and movies like Hackers and Swordfish, see the need to either radically enhance our computing ability, or else distract you from how boring typing is by adding blowjobs. Much to its credit, Zero Dark Thirty does neither. The scenes of research are compelling not because of shaky camera action or a melodramatic voiceover, but because we are emotionally involved in Maya’s search, and we freaking care. We care a lot.

I also have to give a lot of credit to Bigelow here, because the filming of this movie is one of her great masterpieces. While lesser directors (*cough* Tom Hooper *cough*) would feel the need to incessantly move the camera around, creating a false tension and a great deal of seasickness, Bigelow trusts in her story and actors, and actually leaves the camera static for long stretches of time. 

Instead of becoming boring, though, it forces the audience to obsess over every nuance of expression in the actors’ eyes. In a way, this form of filming makes us hyper-attentive to detail, just like Maya is.

And I like that.

The real triumph of the movie, however, goes to Chastain, whose performance as Maya is pretty much everything I want a “strong female character” to be. She’s physically capable, but able to retreat when attacked. She won’t take no for an answer, unless you have a good reason for saying it. She’s confident in her beliefs, brash in the face of opposition, and positively riddled with faults. She is willing to ask for help. She is not perfect. She’s human, but cool. Which is all we can ask for, really.

The moment that clinched my love for this character was the very end. I mean, spoiler alert, Bin Laden dies, but the actual moving bit was after that. Maya boards a transport plane, and the pilot asks where she wants to go. And she just starts to cry.

As a director, there is a very easy urge to give into that would have you make the end of the movie epic and exciting and lots of difficult camera shots. But how much more moving to have a static camera shot in the middle distance, of a single character, and the emotions playing across her face.

Chastain is positively brilliant in that moment, as a woman who has suddenly realized that she’s won, but she’s also lost her reason for living, and I have to say, please give this woman awards. Give her lots of awards. If it were possible to give Jennifer Lawrence awards too, that would make me happy, but if pressed, I’m gonna pick Chastain. She killed it here, she really did.

And by it, I mean Bin Laden.

Redhead in Pakistan = maybe a little too memorable.

1 comment:

  1. Aragon: War is upon you whether you would risk it or not.

    ^ that quote from LOTR is how I usually lead when describing my stance on hawks v. doves (pacifists). I literally cannot hurt even a fly or spider (and I have arachnophobia!) but if someone was trying to rape me or I saw someone being randomly attacked I would fight, protect myself and others. And that's how I see war. Peace only works if both sides will it and if you refuse to fight when someone is trying to kill you, your chances of dying go drastically up. War is often about self-defense and the defense of others. I'm not saying it doesn't get out of control, it definitely goes to a dark and ugly place, but I think there's a difference between doing something violent to stop more violence and just people being violent. Often it's about neutralizing unprovoked attacks. For instance, sending a SWAT team in to take out a mass murderer. If someone is a mass murderer (like on a shooting spree on a school campus) they probably can't be convinced with words to stop because if they listened to reason and compassion they wouldn't be in that situation.