Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A Good Rogering

Roger Ebert says some odd things in his dyspepsic review of Zero Dark Thirty.  Here's how it starts:

Osama bin Laden is dead, which everybody knows, and the principal facts leading up to that are also well-known.

Really?  I think the principal facts leading up to that are not well-known. In fact, that's kind of the point of the film. (Even if he's just referring to the attack that took out bin Laden, I'd say most people couldn't tell you how that went down.)

[Jessica Chastain's character Maya is] a lone wolf CIA agent who sticks to her conviction that bin Laden is not in a cave in Afghanistan, hunched over a kidney dialysis machine, but is likely living in relatively open sight. In reality, when the terrorist was finally tracked down and taken out, the universal astonishment was that his hiding place was a large, walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and that his residence there was relatively widely known -- in the same area, anyway, as the location of a Pakistan military college.

I don't want to get too much into writing style, but doesn't the "in reality" suggest he's setting up a contrast, and then he goes on to affirm what's treated as unexpected in the movie was also unexpected in real life?  And why the "anyway" for the note about the military college? (By the way, was there "universal" astonishment at bin Laden's hiding place?  I remembering thinking he could be anywhere.)

More important, Zero Dark Thirty is not about Maya saying bin Laden's in plain sight and everyone disagreeing, it's about her following what leads she can get.  If they led her to a cave, that's where she'd have gone.

To Maya, however, that is the whole beauty of bin Laden's scheme; one is reminded of Poe's "The Purloined Letter": It is wise to conceal something in plain sight. What takes imagination is to act on it -- to back her hunch with the impulse to believe it is plausible. Here is a disagreement between the time-honored methods of espionage and a quicker, more intuitive approach involving a hunch too good to be true.

There was, I suppose, some time discussing how bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, but a lot more tracking down his place through painstaking and often fruitless work, and then a fair amount trying to confirm that the spot identified could be it. The debate, such as it was, wasn't about whether or not bin Laden could live in such a place so much as whether they could be certain.

The film's first two hours or so consist of a struggle between the Maya faction and the Maya non-believers, and the stakes are huge in the decision to pull the trigger. Consider the embarrassment to President Barack Obama and his advisers if they had turned out to be publicly, sensationally, embarrassingly wrong. You can't call in the Navy SEALs to break into a huge compound on the land of a nation that is theoretically, anyway, an ally. The administration's subsequent portrait of those climactic moments and the possibiliy of its being wrong are very convincing.

Yes, it would be an embarrassment, especially if anyone were killed.  But I seem to recall the SEALs themselves in the film noting they'd been on this mission before and not found bin Laden, and I don't recall that mission being publicly, sensationally, embarrassingly wrong.  In fact, seems to me any war where your enemy is hiding will involve numerous false raids.

The subtext deserves a movie of its own, about a disagreement between macho males who feast on torture and hard-boiled guts, and a woman who depends on more on her intelligence and imagination.

The film doesn't take a clear stance on torture and guts (which is why it's controversial among some)--it just notes that general policy on interrogation changed over the years.  I don't think Maya ever expresses herself clearly on how she'd do things if she were completely in charge, but she does seem willing to work with males who've got "hard-boiled guts" just as those men seem more than willing to rely on intelligence and imagination.

The film's opening scenes are not great filmmaking. They're heavy on jargon and impenetrable calculation, murky and heavy on theory. The parts that everyone now wants to see involve the attack itself. Here the film uses the modern style of underlit Shaky-Cam, with dialogue hard to follow and rapid action in shadows and confusion. We do finally see a version of what must have happened, and even see something of bin Laden's face and the moments of his death, and it's all well-enough made, but to paraphrase the MGM slogan, "That's not entertainment."

I don't recall the film's opening being particularly heavy on jargon and calculation.  In fact, I remember it being pretty heavy on torture and interrogation.  But the main point of the film is it took years of hard work to get bin Laden.  Perhaps the film could have concentrated on the climax, but the filmmakers decided to have most of the story be the hunt, not the kill.  To most critics, the raid was riveting.  For Roger to complain it wasn't some sort of Gene Kelly dance number is bizarre. (And isn't the MGM slogan "Ars gratia artis"?)

The raid on the compound cannot logically be well-lighted and staged, and the portrayal of bin Laden and the other occupants of his home cannot be based on our knowledge of his personality and motivation, because that's not how the film starts out. Thus the "Zero Dark Thirty" raid is not so much a payoff for the events that have been building onscreen, but is a masterstroke of fate.

Well-lit or not, I don't see how the final raid can be seen as anything but a payoff for everything the film has been building to.  I'm not even sure what Ebert means by "masterstroke of fate."

In comparison [to the director's last film "The Hurt Locker"], "Zero Dark Thirty" is a slam-bang action picture, depending on Maya's inspiration. One problem may be that Maya turns out to be correct, with a long, steady build-up depriving the climax of much of its impact and providing mostly irony. Do we want to know more about Osama bin Laden and al Qaida and the history and political grievances behind them? Yes, but that's not how things turned out. Sorry, but there you have it.

Yeah, but...what?

First, the film isn't a slam-bang action picture.  The big action stuff is almost entirely in its final act, with a few eruptions of terror along the way.  The long build-up, in fact, is what makes the climax powerful.

Second, I'd claim the movie being a "slam-bang action picture" doesn't depend on "Maya's inspiration" except I honestly don't understand what Ebert's getting at.  What kind of picture it is depends on the director and screenwriter's inspiration perhaps, but Maya's inspiration?

Third, of course Maya turns out to be correct, or there's no movie.  But it's not just about her "inspiration"--it's not as if she's just doing some women's intuition things while her clueless bosses are too macho to care.  Yes, she has to fight the brass sometimes, but she, working with several colleagues, male and female, toils for years to discover what she can about where the terrorists are hiding.  There's no irony during the final raid--it's the culmination of years of intense and sometimes seemingly hopeless work. (There'd be irony if we watched a two-and-a-half-hour film and they raided the wrong compound.)

Finally, do we want to know more about bin Laden's history and grievances?  I sure don't.  For one thing, the film tries to present (in a compressed way) what is known about the hunt for bin Laden.  Cross-cutting with bin Laden himself, which Roger seems to desperately want, was an artistic decision the filmmakers wisely decided against.  They researched what our intelligence community did, but showing bin Laden's activities would have required mostly guesswork. (And presumably bin Laden was surprised by the attack, so it's not like he'd be taking dramatic countermeasures beyond the ones he'd been taking for years.)  Anyway, we already know about al Qaida's history and grievances, and they're not necessary for the story.  In fact, they'd get in the way. What does Roger want here, anyway?  We were attacked, the attack was a horrible thing, and we're trying to catch the leader of the group behind it.

Yet somehow Roger writes for us all that this is what we want. No Roger, you should have answered your question "well, I do" (and then perhaps added "but why should I assume other people would want things that would only ruin the movie?"). The movie doesn't include a lot of things, Roger. It doesn't include the passage of the 13th Amendment, which played so well in Lincoln.  I suggest you try to review the film you saw. Though I suppose that wouldn't work either since you apparently saw a different film from everyone else.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think this is your worst title ever.

6:01 PM, January 10, 2013  
Anonymous LAGuy said...

Actually I thought "Uncle Mamet" was horrible. This one I don't mind. Besides, I already did "Roger That."

11:08 PM, January 10, 2013  

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