Archive for the ‘biopic’ category

Pompeii

February 23, 2014

Pompeii-Movie-2014-Kit-HaringtonFor a minute, I thought Pompeii was going to do something narratively exciting. We can’t have a 105-minute movie solely devoted to Pompeii being annihilated, so we get a few feeble plot threads we’re supposed to pretend to care about while waiting for Vesuvius to do its thing. We’ve got Milo (Kit Harington), the hero, a soulful Celtic slave turned gladiator, whose gentle way with horses catches the attention of young noblewoman Cassia (Emily Browning). Milo is pissed because when he was a boy, stinky Roman soldier Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) killed his whole family. Wouldn’t you know, though, that Milo is brought to the city of Pompeii as a gladiator around the same time that Corvus, now a senator, shows up there looking to invest in rebuilding the city and take Cassia as his wife?

What would’ve made Pompeii fantastic would be to sink forty minutes or so in all this plot and then have disaster strike, wiping out both the city and the narrative. Milo, Cassia, Corvus: none of that matters now, everyone’s going to die, the Romans along with the “savages,” the innocent next to the corrupt. But Pompeii insists on riding its threadbare story to the bitter ashy end. Everything is resolved tidily. Pompeii crumbles, drowns and burns — the gods throw every last element at the city — but a few characters skitter around in the wreckage to tie up loose ends. I’ve said it for a while now: if there’s one genre that doesn’t need neat three-act structure and character development, it’s the disaster movie. We don’t go to a fireworks show to be involved in the plight of a young fireworks technician who must win the hand of a comely young pyromaniac. We just go to see the lights and feel the thunder in our bellies.

Pompeii leads up to perhaps the biggest fireworks show in recorded history, but its impact is muted by the dull foreground figures. I suspect a better movie could have been made from the 2003 novel of the same name by Robert Harris, who wrote a script for Roman Polanski to direct; the Actors’ Strike in 2007 killed the project (Polanski and Harris turned to The Ghost Writer instead). To be fair, though, few would wish a megabudget disaster flick on a master of intimate menace like Polanski in his dotage. One requires a director with a more enthusiastic chessboard-scattering hand, like Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).

Paul W.S. Anderson got the job instead, and his resumé — including a batch of Resident Evil films and assorted other works in the realm of sci-fi or horror or both — reveals more ease with post-apocalypse than with ongoing apocalypse. Anderson knocks out a few reverberant images early — for instance, dead Celtic warriors hanging from a tree — but doesn’t find much in the repetitive shenanigans of Vulcan to sustain his energy. The festivities begin as tremors that everyone either ignores or comments on with a frown (“Is that normal?” asks Milo after a particularly demonstrative rumble). After a while, as fireballs rain down on Pompeii, the wrath of the gods is just something from which heroes and villains alike must flee. To the harbor! No, wait, the harbor’s rubbish now. To the hills! Oh, hell, we’re all buggered — let’s fight, or kiss, or do something that the audience deems a worthy stance in the face of lava!

Kiefer Sutherland milks a few suavely evil moments out of his rotten senator, accompanied by right-hand man Proculus, played by Sasha Roiz of NBC’s guilty-pleasure series Grimm. This started me thinking that a better actor for steadfast Milo than the inert Kit Harington would’ve been Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays Grimm’s fan-favorite character Monroe; lost in that reverie, I let about five expensive minutes of the movie slip away from me. (Pompeii is another $100 million baby, which in this era of the $200 million blockbuster practically makes the second Terminator film look like the first Terminator film; remember when Terminator 2’s $102 million price tag was considered scandalous?) Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss dither around as the benevolent but weak ruler of Pompeii and his wife; they’re supposed to reassure the audience that not all rich people back then deserved to turn into ashtrays. Pompeii may or may not have an Occupy Rome message rattling around in it; the nobles who come to see the slaves kill each other are vaporized, all right, but so are the common folk for whom Rome intends gladiatorial combat as panem et circenses to distract them from gross inequity. In the end, the gods wipe the slate clean regardless of who was nice to horses or nasty to women and children. I suppose Pompeii can lay claim to being possibly the year’s only movie to kick off with a quote from Pliny the Younger, though we should cautiously note that Transformers 4 hasn’t come out yet.

The Wind Rises

February 17, 2014

the-wind-rises-image02The Wind Rises, which may or may not be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, begins with a dream of flight. It’s early in the 20th century, and young Jiro Horikoshi wants to fly airplanes. His poor eyesight blocks him from being a pilot, so he settles for designing planes. Throughout the movie, Jiro confers with legendary aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni in their “shared dreams” of conquering the skies. The Wind Rises may be the most “realistic” feature Miyazaki has ever made — it lacks Miyazaki’s standard nature spirits and fanciful animals — but it’s still a humble tribute to imagination and creativity, and it unfolds in a gentle universe formed by nature and deformed by humans.

Jiro Horikoshi was an actual engineer; he designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which caused the Allies (and Pearl Harbor) so much grief in World War II. But this is not meant to be taken as a too-literal biography. Miyazaki mashes up Jiro’s life with Tatsuo Hori’s short story “The Wind Has Risen,” about a woman with tuberculosis (a disease Hori suffered with). Thus, Jiro is given a wife, Naoko, who has tuberculosis. To Miyazaki, I think, Naoko represents the innocence that would soon die in the inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Japan,” says a German ex-pat to Jiro, “will blow up.” Miyazaki may be saying that if we don’t blame Oppenheimer and his brothers in the Manhattan Project for the A-bomb and how the military used it, so we shouldn’t blame Jiro for the Zero and how the military used it. In part, The Wind Rises is a tragedy about dreams bent to the will of mass murder.

Miyazaki may not have as much fantasy imagery to conjure with this time — that’s pretty much limited to Jiro’s dreamscapes — but The Wind Rises is still world-class animation, with obsessive attention lavished on the smallest, subtlest things: the flush rivets in an airplane hull; a bowl of watercress salad; moths flitting about a streetlight overlooking Jiro and Naoko. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is realized with an almost spiritual horror, accompanied by vocal effects that sound like the groaning of an angry Gaia. Miyazaki doesn’t show us the casualties, just the wreckage of houses built by men who presumed to claim a patch of Earth as their own. It’s a warning to Jiro — who is on his way to university by train when the quake hits — that human minds, however advanced and well-educated, cannot master nature and her whims.

Far from being an apologia for a man who enabled death, The Wind Rises is the story of an artist/scientist who only wanted to make beautiful airplanes, but happened to be born in a time and country that hammered every effort and ambition on the anvil of war. At one point Jiro quips that the planes would be lighter if the weapons were left out. His spiritual mentor Caproni says that planes shouldn’t be built for war or money, and Miyazaki seems to endorse this. We spend most of our time with Jiro and fellow engineers, some of whom, like his grouchy boss Kurokawa, sternly keep the engineers on the track to military accomplishment, but most likely because that’s what the culture of Japan at that time demanded. Kurokawa also presides tearfully over the quick wedding of Jiro and Naoko, so he hasn’t been completely lost to the machinery of war.

Naoko is no Princess Mononoke, defiantly spitting blood and doing battle on behalf of nature; she’s a blank signifier of Japanese suffering. That’s about the only bummer here. Miyazaki is more concerned here with the conflict of feminine and masculine in one WWII-era male, the conflict between beauty and destruction. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The Wind Rises says that when art is made useful — mostly for the purposes of war — the earth trembles; some law of nature has been shattered. (Many guns, too, are masterpieces of design. Not to mention swords.) Miyazaki, not yet a year old when some of Jiro’s artwork strafed Pearl Harbor, has made a tragic epic about what happens when the spirit of creativity is put to corrupt usefulness.

The Wolf of Wall Street

January 5, 2014

wows-03The Wolf of Wall Street may be the most exuberant film about sin ever made. Therein, for many viewers, lies the rub: Is it sufficiently scolding about what it shows us? When we’re following stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from excess to excess, when the screen is full of cocaine and whores and many other signposts of profound debauchery, are we supposed to be having such a good time? The moralists, made uneasy, rumble scornfully. Let them rumble: Wolf is a shot of the hard stuff, gargantuan and electrifying, a psychotronic epic of the id unchecked. It lands with a reverberant thud in the midst of the bitter national mood: why do so few have so much at the expense of the many who have so little? The director, Martin Scorsese, is famously Catholic, and he has made a movie that, absent the skin and nose candy and rampant obscenity, the current Pope might agree with.

But leave such meditations on the film’s clean intentions to the literal-minded. Wolf of Wall Street is a caffeinated (or cocaine-driven) victory of sheer heedless, beautiful filmmaking for its own sake; there isn’t a dead shot anywhere in its three hours, which go by like a comet. Jordan Belfort starts out as a little fish in a big pond — baying for money at a large Wall Street firm — and, following the crash of ’87, finds work at a Long Island boiler room, selling pink-sheet crap for fifty-percent commissions. Soon enough, he filches some co-workers and some weed-dealer cronies and starts his own firm, with the hilariously patrician name of Stratton Oakmont. It’s hugely successful, and the men celebrate their own stench with marching bands and “blue-chip” prostitutes and dwarf-tossing.

The stench permeates the film: One problem with wild excess is that it vampirizes the body and soul. In a never-to-be-forgotten sequence, Jordan and his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, the movie’s nuttily inspired MVP) acquire some age-old Lemmon 714 quaaludes; impatient with the drug’s delayed-action effects, they pop more and more, until they’re both shambling, drooling, shorted-out robots. Party on, dude! The way the situation resolves itself — with Jordan catching a Popeye cartoon on TV, using cocaine as spinach, and saving Donnie’s life — is Scorsese’s sly nod to the “kids, don’t try this at home” moralism he knows some viewers will demand. The drug-taking looks exhausting, the sex is pointedly unsexy. Scorsese shows all this as hollow without standing aside and announcing its hollowness. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, you’d have to be a moral idiot to find the shenanigans emulable, but the film, like Scorsese’s GoodFellas, doesn’t pretend that excess in itself, or the fantasy idea of it, isn’t addictive and a great kick. If it weren’t, who would want it?

Pumping himself full of toxic salesman air, DiCaprio stands astride the orgies with the aura of an unquestioned emperor; Wolf, along with Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby, completes his trilogy of men blighted by filthy money. The movie isn’t misogynistic, but its narrator is, so the women are generally seen as bodies and mouths that either add to or subtract from the fun; but Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie take sizable bites out of their scenes as Jordan’s first and second wives, Joanna Lumley does an elegant turn as an aunt who helps Jordan launder money, and Stephanie Kurtzuba has a great brief bit as one of Stratton Oakmont’s success stories, a single mom who went to work for Jordan and pulled herself out of poverty. Besides, no movie that hates women would linger as it does on the anecdote in which a female staffer is offered $10,000 to have her head shaved, does so, and then sits there with the ruins of her hair, a stack of green, and a visible hole where her dignity used to be.

If Wolf of Wall Street has a hero, it’s FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), a 99-percenter taking on the one-percenters who bathe in the blood of other one-percenters (which, in turn, affects the 99-percenters that the one-percenters employ). Denham shlumps around the city in subway cars instead of inside his own helicopter or yacht or Porsche, but he sleeps with a clear conscience. By the end, Jordan, having done soft time at a minimum-security Nevada white-collar prison, is pumping up the next generation of swindlers, headlining motivational talks for would-be wolves in New Zealand. “Sell me this pen!” he demands, narrowing the wolf-eats-sheep ethos of finance down to four syllables. GoodFellas sealed Henry Hill’s moral blankness by having him gripe, “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Here, Jordan gets to live the rest of his life teaching schnooks to sell other schnooks their own pens.

American Hustle

December 22, 2013

american-hustle-amy-adams-1“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.

Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and nine minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.

It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).

Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.

At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.

Saving Mr. Banks

December 15, 2013

safe_imageSomeday, an enterprising film programmer will organize a festival entirely devoted to movies about writers whose work was bowdlerized by Disney. The festival could screen Dreamchild (Lewis Carroll), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), and Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of P.L. Travers’ struggles with Walt Disney over his studio’s adaptation of her book Mary Poppins. In a great example of corporate synergy, the movie arrives just in time to be sold alongside 50th-anniversary DVDs and Blu-rays of Mary Poppins next year at your local Wal-Mart, which might also sell you stuffed versions of the animated penguins Travers loathed so much. From beyond the grave, Disney has his revenge on the recalcitrant and Magic-Kingdom-allergic Travers. She allowed no film sequels to Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks, brought to you by the Disney studio, works as a simplistic Disney-version prequel of sorts.

Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers when her agent implores her to entertain the idea of selling Mary Poppins to Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been after the rights for twenty years. He made a promise to his daughters, he says, and he intends to keep it. Travers packs two tidy bags and grudgingly jets off to L.A., where she’s greeted by a hotel room filled with stuffed Disney characters. Here and there, Saving Mr. Banks is almost a whistle-clean Disney rewrite of Barton Fink, with Walt Disney as both studio head Jack Lipnick and the intrusive creative id Madman Mundt: Travers’ Disney-festooned room is about as disturbing as Barton’s room clogged with mosquitoes and wallpaper paste. But it’s also a smiley-face inverse — Travers’ demons and writerly quirks are destined to be gentled by good ol’ Walt’s intuitive understanding of what’s really bugging the old dame.

Director John Lee Hancock, no stranger to sentimental muck (he made The Blind Side), gives us copious elegiac flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a drunken fantasist who couldn’t hold down a job. The key to Mary Poppins and to Travers, then, is Mr. Banks, who was based on her father; once the movie’s lyricists pen a song in which Mr. Banks redeems himself by fixing a kite, Travers warms up and swallows Disney’s conception, cartoon penguins and all — at least according to this film. This complex woman, a bisexual Zen Buddhist who worked for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, is reduced to a wrinkled little girl who wants her daddy. She resists and maybe resents Disney because his brand of fantasy reminds her of Father (and was far more lucrative), but in the end, Daddy/Disney comes through, even consoling a tearful Travers at Mary Poppins’ premiere.

The movie says that pinched British artistry (actually Australian by birth, though Travers made England her home in 1924) doesn’t stand a chance against vulgar, mass-appeal, glad-handing American showmanship. Judged solely on performances, Saving Mr. Banks is sometimes amusing, if you willfully forget the context; Hanks’ Disney is an amiable yarn-spinner who won’t let his staff refer to him as anything but Walt, and Thompson’s Travers has the sharp wit of the terminally disappointed. They’re playing two vastly disparate icons, though the writing doesn’t help them transcend stereotype — the affable American man who has to defrost the prickly British lady is a trope pretty much as old as cinema. Ultimately the movie, despite its focus on Travers and her sour-faced childhood issues, is a warm tribute to and embrace of the Disneyfication process.

Ol’ Walt knows exactly how to melt Travers: he tells her he can make millions of people all over the world love her father. This, of course, comes at the price of nonsensical ditties and a dance number with penguins and Dick Van Dyke uncorking the worst Cockney accent ever recorded for posterity. It also leads, years later, to a movie that depicts Travers’ daddy as a useless drunk who almost drove her mother to suicide and who finished his time spitting blood in a lonely bedroom. Travers, who died in 1996, would certainly not have cherished seeing her father’s diseased guts laid out for sentimental scrutiny this way, especially not in the service of explaining to audiences why Disney’s triumph over Travers benefited the world and her father’s memory. In real life, Travers hated what Disney did to her creation, and she would have hated what his studio has now done to her.

Dallas Buyers Club

November 24, 2013

Dallas-buyers-clubYou don’t have to be anti-science to question science in the hands of men who care more for profit. We are told by the corporate-owned press that anodynes found in nature are bad and those concocted in a lab are good — why? There’s no money in nature. In Dallas Buyers Club, a very unlikely radical and hero, ne’er-do-well Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), takes on the FDA and the medical establishment itself. It’s 1985, and Woodroof, a drug user, frequenter of prostitutes, and general scoundrel, is diagnosed with HIV. Woodroof, a reflexive homophobe, balks at this: Back then, HIV and AIDS were considered “the gay plague.” Woodroof is not, at first glance, a conventional hero — and indeed he continues to be crude and abrasive. Dying doesn’t really change him; it just makes him angrier, more passionate to suck any little juice out of life. The great thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it proves someone can be kind of an asshole and also a great man.

At the hospital, Woodroof is given AZT, the only drug for HIV/AIDS therapy approved by the FDA. It doesn’t help him; it makes him sicker. So he looks outside the box, outside America, and hooks up with a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) who tells him about various, much less toxic treatments developed in France and other countries. They work, but alas lack the imprimatur of the FDA. Woodroof comes home with a trunk full of vitamins and protein-based serums, and sets up a “buyers club” wherein a $400 membership buys you all the drugs you want. Along the way, everyone tries to shut him down; he’s audited, his inventory is confiscated. But he’ll be damned if he’ll give in. The movie suggests that only an asshole like Woodroof — a single-minded good ol’ boy who drinks and whores around — has the Texas-sized stones to take on the big guns, all while holding off the biggest gun of all (initially given thirty days to live, Woodroof hung on seven more years, until 1992).

Dallas Buyers Club is only tangentially about AIDS; it’s really more for anyone who’s ever laughed bitterly at drug commercials that rattle off long lists of appalling side effects. At times, Americans seem to want to treat their bodies like a garden that they neglect to water and nourish; then, when the garden starts to fail, they dump kerosene all over it and hope that’ll fix it. In this movie, the medical establishment is hawking kerosene, because there’s money in kerosene. Woodroof isn’t a scientist, but he has some common sense and his will to live drives him into the library. Such patients are troublesome to doctors, who may want to be helpful (like the doctor played here by Jennifer Garner who has doubts about AZT) but whose hands are tied. The film says that this is what happens when health care becomes corporatized. Its reach becomes wider but clumsier and often mangles the Hippocratic Code. When all you’re allowed to use is a hammer, every disease becomes a nail.

Fair warning to epileptics and others sensitive to high-pitched noise: at several points in the movie, when Woodroof’s health falters, an intense whine dominates the soundtrack. Otherwise, the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) is unobtrusive and delicate, treating the sometimes clichéd narrative beats with a matter-of-factness that helps put them over. A scene of hostility between one of Woodroof’s homophobic former buddies and Woodroof’s transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) is good for a cleansing laugh, and perhaps not coincidentally this is the first time I’ve been able to tolerate Jared Leto in a movie. Woodroof puts up with Rayon and her Marc Bolan obsession, and words like “faggot” slowly drop out of his conversation, if for no other reason than that gays are now his customer base. To its credit, the movie doesn’t really give Woodroof a big moment of reform; he’s in the buyers club primarily to live and to make a living. He doesn’t want to be a firebrand taking on the Man, but he has to be.

Those who enjoyed Matthew McConaughey in his earlier roles, before he walked in the wilderness of inane romantic comedies for about a decade, have been heartened by his resurgence in meatier roles in Magic Mike, Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and probably the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. It’s been a textbook comeback — the former sexiest-man-alive prince returns, possibly with the makings of a king — and his performance here is likely the jewel in the crown. McConaughey understands men like Woodroof and spends zero time detaching himself from Woodroof’s less savory inclinations or beliefs. Woodroof can be gallant and even whitebread when it suits him, but he never stops being the guy with dirt under his fingernails who bets on the rodeo and likes a lap dance. It’s great character-actor work with the scale of a major star turn, the sort of transformation we saw with regularity in the ’70s but have, by and large, learned to live without. McConaughey’s recent arc to greatness parallels that of the man he’s playing: If someone formerly so disreputable, so unworthy of serious consideration, can do work on this level, what else is possible?

Zero Dark Thirty

January 20, 2013

banner_zero dark thirty bowdenKathryn Bigelow has directed excellent movies before, but Zero Dark Thirty deserves to be remembered as the film that established her as a master, worthy of inclusion in the ranks of the great filmmakers. Zero Dark Thirty runs two hours and thirty-seven minutes, and there is not one inessential moment in it, not one inelegant shot. It goes forward at a steady, easy pace, trusting us to keep up, spanning eight years of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden without losing a step. It also spends roughly its first hour focusing on squalid failure — the efforts on the CIA’s part to torture information out of detainees. The torture doesn’t work; it doesn’t lead to any intel that stops numerous subsequent attacks or that leads to bin Laden. People who claim the movie is pro-torture must have wandered into a different theater, or gone into the film determined to find justifications where there are none. In the actual film that I saw, the CIA gets nowhere until they stop torturing detainees.

But enough of that. The movie, written by Mark Boal (Bigelow’s collaborator on The Hurt Locker) based on his interviews with many figures involved in the manhunt, is structured almost like a police procedural: We know whodunit, but how can we find him? A lot of the film is talking heads in offices, but Bigelow keeps the scenes tight and urgent. The protagonist, the fictionalized Maya (Jessica Chastain), has worked for the CIA since the ink was barely dry on her high-school diploma. Bin Laden becomes her white whale, though we’re given no evidence of any personal injury done to her by al-Qaeda; we also avoid the usual dull scenes where Maya has to balance her job and some relationship. She is defined entirely by her obsession, her determination, and her intelligence. Maya appears before us as the sort of literary blank slate we can project ourselves onto. We share her frustration; we share her revulsion at the torture performed by her CIA associate (Jason Clarke), who otherwise seems an amiable sort (he eventually opts for a desk job, yearning for something “normal”).

Other than some truly shocking moments of terrorism here and there, and the nail-biting raid on bin Laden’s compound, Zero Dark Thirty is not an action film, yet Bigelow and Boal let their characters reveal themselves through action, or action not taken, or action expressed as decision. Maya herself is not going to the Abbottabad compound to plug bin Laden in the head personally, but sending Navy SEALs in to take him out is still her responsibility (“Bin Laden is there,” she tells one of the soldiers, “and you’re going to kill him for me”). There’s a great deal of strategy, digital espionage, even bribery. Like Zodiac, the movie feels like a thick book packed with fascinating data and anecdotes, though getting too hung up on what’s literally true on the screen is pointless. It’s still a movie.

Maya is a tough cookie, but by casting the pale, red-haired, rather fragile-looking Jessica Chastain, Bigelow makes the unstressed point that not all strong women are built like Lucy Lawless; they come in deceptively frail packages, too, and Chastain seems almost recessive at times, but then, at a moment of high frustration, her Maya lets fly with a volley of vituperation at a stonewalling higher-up. She may look waifish but you don’t want to get in her way. The men around her, and some of the women, are nonplussed by Maya’s absolute certainty that she’s right. Unlike the male bureaucrats surrounding her, she doesn’t worry about covering her ass. She’s a hero, but Bigelow and Chastain also establish that Maya’s very certainty in this murky moral universe is a little inhuman. Battle not with monsters, as they say.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t stand to the side and say “Torture is bad.” It assumes we know that, and it suggests that even if torture worked perfectly it would — or should — still weigh heavily on the American soul. In the climactic raid, we see men and women, bin Laden’s accomplices in hiding him — willingly or unwillingly, who can say? — shot down in front of their shrieking children. It’s ugly stuff, and those who want to see bin Laden ventilated in full gory Django Unchained retributive glory will be disappointed — it happens mainly offscreen. A key theme in Bigelow’s work has always been the ambiguities attached to violence and the mechanisms, psychological or artificial, people use to distance themselves from the hurt they’re causing. In that respect, Zero Dark Thirty feels like Bigelow’s magnum opus, the big one she’s been working towards for the last three decades. It links nicely with her previous films, like Hurt Locker, of course, but also the dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days and even Blue Steel, a cop movie about a woman trying to bring a psychopath to justice. Here she has delivered an epic that is thoughtful but isn’t sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought; it is robust, physically exact — it hums with the special electricity of smart people doing what they do best, although doing their best often leads to failure anyway. Not in Bigelow’s case, though.


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