Friday, 25 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Okay, so after watching Django I've decided I'm getting award season fever so I'm gonna blast through as many Best Picture nominations as I can (it's a travesty that Django wasn't in there) just so I can be properly outraged when something shit wins as it always does at the Oscars.

Anyway... Zero Dark Thirty (and its fantastic poster, above). A film about the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden could have gone two ways. It could have gone the "bang bang shoot our way through Afghanistan until we realise we should be looking in Pakistan then blast our way through there too" or it could have gone the way it did and be more of a Law and Order style police procedural with the "police" being the CIA. It's all the better for it really, especially considering an "Ooh-rah let's shoot us some terrists"flick would have been exactly the propaganda I was glad ZDT never really became.

With much more focus on drama and procedure, ZDT isn't the action film that you might think you're getting from the first trailer (not to mention the fact that you only see half of Jessica Chastain's face and the back of her head for a second in it, but sexism in marketing films is another discussion for another day)*. There is, obviously, a quite action packed set piece towards the end (you can probably guess what that involves if you've watched a news programme in the past two years) but it's not indicative of the rest of the film. The majority of screentime centres around Jessica Chastain's Maya and her obsessive ten year journey to be the one who is responsible for finding public enemy number one. Spanning ten years and two continents means that there isn't really much room for any of the rest of the cast to make much of an impression. This is pretty much the Jessica Chastain Show, and she runs it well. As you would hope, you get quite a lot of character development over a decade. Maya runs through a multitude of grey areas morally and emotionally through her career and they take their toll. From the tentative and wary person she is in her first "enhanced" interrogation to the very Carrie-from-Homeland type character she becomes. The mission consumes her and becomes her entire life, delivering a very poignant scene at the very end of the film.

The events at the beginning of the movie that mold her into a harder person have been pretty controversial themselves. Featuring depictions of detainees being waterboardied, put into stress positions, locked in boxes and beaten, the film's stance regarding torture has been varied. Some interpret it as a condemnation of the CIA and wider US Govt. treatment of detainees, and other see it as a message saying that torture is a necessary evil. I was very fearful of being fed some bullshit propaganda message about how the treatment was justified but I don't think I got that. the impression I took from it was that this was simply what happened, and we're left to make our own judgement about it. One criticism I'd level on that note though is how much of a point is made of the Obama administration's clamp down on torture/enhanced interrogation. The CIA staff make it sound as if his office actually made it all stop completely and immediately, when it's pretty clear that did not and has not happened.

I'm very glad that Kathryn Bigelow (director) didn't gloss over the details of the final raid on the compound to paint SEAL Team 6 as unfaultable American heroes**. The raid does mess up where it did in real life, there are casualties that could have been avoided and certain practices (e.g. shooting stationary bodies "just to make sure") that aren't exactly considered respectful happen but overall it seems like a fair and accurate representation. Something I might take issue with is that it's never said out loud that the raid isn't exactly legal for the US to be carrying out on Pakistani soil. It's alluded to, but never spoken in such words. That could've been made clearer.

Overall though, the film doesn't come off to me as political propaganda. There's been a lot of fuss made over how much access Bigelow and co. got to some classified files when doing the research, access that could have been given in return for good lighting, but personally I don't feel like I was campaigned at. That said, despite being a well paced film with an immensely tense finale and an engaging central character, I don't think a film like this should ever be given the award for Best Picture. I know, saying that art shouldn't be rewarded on merit because of its subject matter is borders on fascistic censorship***, but I just think that giving something with such potential to be propaganda such a prestigious award would set a bad precedent. That, and I just think it was a really good film, not a great film.

*Seriously, don't take any of the adverts or trailers you'll see for this as representative of the film you'll get. They either ignore the main character completely or make it look like Black Hawk Down 2.
*Well, I mean I have nothing but respect for the soldiers themselves, they were just doing their jobs. I mean with regards to the mission and the nature of how it was orchestrated.

** I know, I know. I'm a prat.

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