Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Shedding Light on the Dark
One of the most difficult kinds of movies to make is one that tells a true story in which the ending is already known by the audience. It's just such an immense challenge to inject a film with any real sense of tension or excitement when the outcome is known. Interestingly, 2012 seems to be the year for exactly this kind of movie, with Argo and Lincoln both attempting this difficult feat. And because both of those films excelled at this challenge, they earned their well-deserved Oscar nominations.
Zero Dark Thirty does as well. There are multiple sequences of masterfully Hitchcockian terror, where you know with absolute certainty that something bad is about to happen... but you're waiting... nervously... for it to happen. It culminates in a final half-hour depicting the 2011 raid on the Abottabad compound which may be one of the most successful prolonged suspense sequences ever put to film.
Most of the credit goes to director Kathryn Bigelow. Her careful placement and movement of the camera are integral to what makes the film work. She has a gift for action that most A-list action directors don't even have. I may not have been crazy about The Hurt Locker, her earlier film that won Best Picture (and her Best Director), but if the meandering story of that movie made it a bit harder to appreciate her talents, the razor focus of this tale puts them on full display.
Credit should also go to writer Mark Boal, who managed to distill a story that actually unfolded over nearly a decade into a clean and clear narrative of two-and-a-half hours. Of course, his work on the film is also where the controversy surrounding the film stems, but I'll get to that momentarily.
The film also boasts an excellent cast. What particularly impressed me is how much they disappeared into their roles here. In other movies and TV shows, I've seen Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Stephen Dillane, and Harold Perrineau. Few of them may be true household names, but they're all faces I recognize. And yet somehow, here they all seem to fade into their roles to a degree that makes the film feel like it's cast with skilled unknowns. It's a wonderful effect for the movie. (And the only exception I'd point to in the cast is James Gandolfini, who definitely stands out as a "celebrity" in the movie.)
So... the controversy. Though there was initially some blather over the movie being a pre-election, pro-Obama bit of propoganda (in both timing and content, it proved to be neither), the latest criticisms have centered around two other areas. One is a question of whether the filmmakers were granted undue access to classified materials to craft their movie. That is a question of politics and not filmmaking, and as such I decline to comment here.
The other controversy is about torture. Some have accused the movie of being essentially pro-torture, claiming that it depicts accurate intelligence being obtained from "enhanced interrogation techniques," and that that intelligence was key in ultimately finding Osama bin Laden. It's a charge I'm skeptical of, for a few reasons.
First, I think the movie is a bit ambiguous on this front. Yes, it depicts torture. But it does seem to place this in a context of many sources of information, all synthesized together. It's true that those other methods are only referenced or implied in dialogue, while the torture is put front and center on the screen. But I don't think that necessarily condones the torture. If anything, the scenes are crafted to make you squirm. They're uncomfortable to watch. They don't glorify the practice. (I'm not even sure how you'd go about doing that.)
Of course, the criticism stems more from the question of whether truthful information can be obtained from culture. And that gets into the question of what responsibility this movie has to tell the unvarnished truth. This is a dramatization, not a documentary. While it's possible that may not completely absolve the film of any responsibility to truth, I do think its greater responsibility is to tell a story in a compelling way in just a few hours. Sometimes, movies do that with the unvarnished truth. Sometimes, they stretch the facts.
Argo manufactures a tense final sequence that, by real account, never actually happened. But it's the right thing for that movie. Is the problem that Zero Dark Thirty depicts more recent history? United 93 imagines events aboard the doomed flight that we'll never be able to confirm. Is the difference that the subject here is torture? Jack Bauer tortured someone practically on a weekly basis on 24. Is the difference that Zero Dark Thirty is not fundamentally a work of fiction?
The movie entertained, and it got people talking about the issues -- in the real world where they need to be addressed anyway. In my book, that's sufficient... and more than most movies pull off. Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary, and I don't believe it should be held to the standards of one. (Not that all documentaries tell the complete truth either, of course.)
In any other year, I could see Zero Dark Thirty awarded Best Picture, and enthusiastically support the choice. The trouble is, 2012 is not a year of weak competition. I mentioned Argo and Lincoln earlier in this review, and as much as I did think Zero Dark Thirty was well done, I'd rate both of those movies just a touch higher. But that's quibbling over a matter of very small degrees when this movie is still certainly worth an A-. The quibbling is only to decide where to place Zero Dark Thirty in my Top 10 of the year (which I've once again updated; Frankenweenie, we hardly knew you before you got bumped off).