Zero Dark Thirty

Assault & vinegar

JessicaChastainMayaI don’t need the Academy to tell me.  I’ve been saying it for two years: Jessica Chastain is the Best Actress.  I’ve gushed enough about her prolificness, her unrivaled collection of characters, and her steadfast dedication to the craft (which has, as far as what I can gather from her own words, taken precedent over anything worldly, including personal relationships and romance).  Here is an actress who believes in the importance of empowered women in the movies, and in powerful characters to be played by them (not to mention a cultivated understanding of what “strong” means in that context).  Here is an actress who can be interviewed on television and say insightful things you haven’t heard before.  Here is someone who radiates originality, maturity, and independence every step of the way.  A year ago, she wasn’t recognized in public.  Look at her now.  If we need role models from our visual entertainment industry, I’ve got one for you.

“This is a very rare lead role in cinema,” she said to Time about the role of Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. “Women, I find, we’re defined a lot by men and thus defined by our gender, who we are through our relationship with men, be it as a victim or a love relationship. The idea that this is a woman who defines herself by her work and by her brain and doesn’t try to sleep with her superiors, that to me is really inspiring. I’m in a very different business. As an actor, there are a lot of women around. Not as many women as men, but there are more women around than in a field like the CIA. I don’t experience that [numbers difference], but I do experience that in our society we are still labeled by our gender.”

Isn’t it the truth?  Just look at the filmmaker.  How many viewers and interviewers define Bigelow by the fact that she was married to James Cameron, a far inferior filmmaker?  Add the fact that the couple were only married for two years (’89-’91), long before Bigelow was a juggernaut on the directing scene, and long before she trounced him for Best Picture (2008), an accomplishment in itself, since only four female directors including Bigelow have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and only three for Best Director.

Zero Dark Thirty, a sort of spiritual successor to The Hurt Locker, is introduced with the promise that the story we’re about to see is based upon true events.  Which events?  We are left to judge and believe as we will.  The protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, goes only by the name Maya; whether or not this is her real name (most characters in the film go by first name only) is also left to us.  Maya is based upon a real person, labeled in the news as the “Girl Who Got bin Laden,” a CIA officer with incredible confidence.  This introduces a conundrum in the process of storytelling: Maya, just like her real-life CIA counterpart, has little or no personal life.  Every bit of her time is dedicated to her work.  In the movie, we watch her chase down leads on Osama bin Laden over the course of several years, and her unbridled drive is something we are never allowed to understand.  We get tidbits of her old life in the background of shots (a screensaver and so on), but if you take your eyes away from Maya while watching this film for the first time, your scrutiny is misplaced.

Jason Clarke appears as Dan, a CIA muscleman who tortures prisoners for info.  There’s plenty of onscreen waterboarding.  Maya observes and even assists with Dan’s torture operations in the beginning, appearing slightly disgusted at the idea but not quite feeling sorry for the people who aided in the murder of thousands of American people.  As in The Big Lebowski, a film to which I never expected to compare this one, there is a pattern of dialogue repetition.  As the Dude more or less plagiarizes other people’s pearls of wisdom for the sake of sounding smarter, characters in ZDT take what they can from each other and pass on ideas.  Maya takes the torch from Dan when the job becomes too much for him (“I’ve seen too many guys naked,” he says), and introduces herself to prisoners in the same intimidating way he once did.  Once she gives some great advice to CIA Director George (Mark Strong), he repeats some of her terminology to his superiors.

I’ve had some trouble deciding whether the characterization of Maya works.  In a traditional sense, it doesn’t, because we know nothing of her personal life, whether she has friends and family, what she thinks of being unable to tell anyone what she does, what she feels at any given time.  She is propelled only by the action of the narrative.  However, the evolution of the parts of her personality we see, which essentially amount to two versions of her work personality, are handled in a very interesting way.  When she interrogates someone (post-Dan), she wears a dark wig.  At first, this seems like an understandable precaution: you don’t want too many enemies of America to be able to identify someone with starkly unique characteristics (bright red hair, for one) by memory, or to be able to figure out who she is on sight.  But consider the garb she wears when speaking to prisoners in daylight and when convincing them to give in with words instead of torture: a white headscarf.  The dark wig enables Maya, who doesn’t truly believe torture is the best way, to play a character, a woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and ordering brutish goons to beat the hell out of a defenseless person.  Every time she peels the wig off at the end of the workday, she absolves herself of the fact that she’s skirting war crimes – granted, her most effective methods are verbal, and she doesn’t go halfway to where Dan went.  He even seemed to enjoy it before losing the stomach.

Over the years, Maya finds leads, and several quiet (and some unintentionally explosive) operations are undertaken in order to find bin Laden.  She gains a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient and always spot-on in her hunches and assessments.  She works in Pakistan with Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA’s Station Chief in Islamabad, until his identity is compromised and he is replaced by a relaxed boss who lets Maya do what she wants.  Jessica Chastain’s scenes with Chandler are her best opportunities to let loose her intensity, and will certainly be the ones shown in every reel meant to convince viewers that she deserves this year’s biggest performance awards.

Eventually, Maya’s exploits lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and she is able to convince everyone, even President Obama (not played by anyone in the film), to 100% certainty that bin Laden is there.  A squadron of Navy SEALs led by Justin (Chris Pratt) and Patrick (Joel Edgerton), unremarkable bearded goofballs who could be anyone (maybe a wise move since the identities of the actual SEALs who performed the operation cannot be released), raid the compound and take down bin Laden in a scene that takes, perhaps, as long as the real-life operation did (a far too long stretch of time without Maya onscreen, one of the film’s only structural missteps).

The film features an interesting slew of bit parts, but the characters are utilized much better than those of The Hurt Locker, which often jarred me not with its tense bomb-diffusing scenes, but with its striking misuse of Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly.  James Gandolfini appears as Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, who has a bit of a Jabba-the-Hutt vibe when trying to verbally intimidate Maya.  Jennifer Ehle is Jessica, a fellow CIA officer and friend of Maya’s who has un-spoilable involvement in the 2009 Camp Chapman Attack.  Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, and Mark Duplass also appear here and there, and their time is well-used.  Mark Strong plays a convincing American (not to mention an effective possessor of hair).

The film has been accused by Those Who Want Attention as being pro-torture.  I can’t agree.  In fact, a film with so many opportunities to be as red-white-and-blue as Argo almost completely forgoes them. The film does not ignore the fact that war crimes, including vicious torture, were implemented in order to get information (although the people at the top swear up and down that good results were never obtained through waterboarding, which is somewhat reflected in the film).  Also note that Maya does not think torture is the key to finding bin Laden, and must play a role that disgusts her in order to do what she thinks is right.  We also see the SEAL team kill unarmed people, including women, in the raid: Bigelow chooses not to give into the “we can never be anything but good guys” myths involving bin Laden firing upon the SEALs before they killed him.  She even chooses to show a news clip of President Obama (the only time he is seen in the entire film) denying that the United States uses/condones torture, immediately after a scene of Dan brutalizing a prisoner.  None of this is presented with bias or deliberate irony; it’s all very matter-of-fact, and for that, I have to concede some artistic respect.

The film also has two image patterns: one is Maya’s Converse shoe (watch how it’s used each time it’s onscreen), and the other, also touched upon twice, is a tear rolling from someone’s left eye.  This is first seen when Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being tortured despite supposedly not knowing anything, and once again at the very end when Maya is all alone on a plane home.  Could this be read, maybe, as a comment on the commonalities between people (and their reactions to figurative solitude), regardless of alignment?  Maya, after all of her work, after she was right, is relieved to finally leave this behind her, and we are relieved for her.  A step towards a normal life, maybe?  But there’s something that stings – she’s still referred to as “the girl” in a radio transmission asking for confirmation that bin Laden (“Geronimo”) is dead.  Will Bigelow receive the same label within the mix of filmmakers up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year (all of whom are male)?  If she snags Best Picture a second time (and even if not, considering this film and its lead actress’s accomplishments, and overall, how little award ceremonies mean in regards to art), I think she’ll have given a good start to shedding a long-standing stigma concerning women in movies.  We’ll have gotten to a good area, maybe, and as Jessica Chastain’s Maya says as she speaks out in a room full of all-important men, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.”

Zero Dark Thirty (2012); written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Results may vary

Let’s talk about dialogue for a minute.  In recent films (not all, but the majority of what’s advertised), the dialogue rides bitch to virtually everything else: plot action, concept, computer graphics, visuals, soundtrack, cinematography.  In action movies (which I’m more inclined to call Explosion Movies or Hunter-Gatherer Movies since they rarely contain much that I’d consider “action” and are always aimed at men who need a replacement activity for their prehistoric forefathers’ jobs), dialogue is reduced to laconic one-liners, all of which you’ve heard before, and which only seem to occur when the battle scenes make room for talking.  The very concept of laconic speech – that is to say, phrases that express ideas in as few words as possible – originated (or is leastways attributed to) the ancient Spartans, who, being a military culture and all-around tough guys, were expected to be men of very few words.  This tradition bled all the way down to modern America, which in its more embarrassing moments idolizes the same sorts of people – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme (I bet you can name twenty of them) – and is used for a different purpose: not to forgo pompous polemics and long-winded spiels, but to avoid losing the attention of the twenty-first century ADD generation (non-readers, iPhone slaves, Facebook addicts, and tech junkies) that production companies seem to think constitutes 100% of consumers.  In other words, no one can pay attention anymore, and Hollywood is doing nothing to make anyone want to.

Most of the films that make any artistic impression are now independent, and free of the five-seconds-per-shot-and-sentence rule, making use of effective dialogue that moves the story along but also means something, and moreover, sounds as though the screenwriter (which, as a writer of literary prose judging the current state of film dialogue, I’m more tempted to dub a screen-outliner) actually put some time and thought into what the characters say.  Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed is one such film.  Billed as a movie about time travel, the film only skirts the subject, avoiding any real science and focusing chiefly on its characters and how they might actually interact if they were people.

The story follows Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks & Rec fame), a recent college graduate slogging through a dead-end internship at a snobby magazine.  When Jeff (Jake Johnson), one of the magazine’s contributors, discovers a classified ad asking for a time-travel partner (the writer of the ad claims that he’s “only done this once before”), Darius volunteers to be Jeff’s sidekick.  Accompanied by Arnau (Karan Soni), who more or less embodies the Indian Friend character archetype, the duo travel to Ocean View, Washington, with the goal of tracking down Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass) and pretending to be interested in time-traveling with him in order to get a good story for the mag.  On top of this deceit, we soon learn that Jeff couldn’t care less about the story, and simply needs an excuse to travel to Ocean View so he can hook up with an old girlfriend, Liz (Jenica Bergere).  Since Arnau is relatively antisocial and only interning for the magazine for the sake of broadening his resume, Darius is left to get the story on Kenneth herself.

What follows is a carefully painted picture of how film characters act when they exhibit actual human behavior, and lo and behold, the filmmakers manage to accomplish this without use of the cheap “found footage” or “documentary style” narrative, which often involves shaky-cam and contrived storytelling meant to mimic “realism.”  Since characters, especially in a film, are still characters and not people, Darius and the others remain bound by the rules of narrative, and thus certain plot points must be unraveled before the end, but Safety Not Guaranteed handles film formula in such an adept way that the events play out naturally.  The ending is too delicious and well-delivered to spoil, but Darius and Kenneth’s motives for time travel evolve with their respective characters, and if (but especially when) time travel has taken place is something to talk about while the credits are rolling.  The film manages to forgo all of the time-travel-tropes – the fish out of water story (a modern character travels to the past and tries to blend in, or vice versa), the epic adventure (characters return to a pivotal time period in order to correct a problem), and even the doom-and-gloom story (a character’s life is saved by time travel, albeit only temporarily), and the film does this without becoming a full-on comedy (Back to the Future; A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), an adventure movie with flat characters (The Time Machine; Timeline), a tragedy (The Time Traveler’s Wife; Donnie Darko), and even without resorting to convoluted time-travel science (Primer).  The wonderfully human performances by Plaza, Duplass, and Johnson reinforce the humanity of the characters, who remain passionate about things real people are passionate about, even in the face of the fantastical: love, money, the satisfaction of a job well done, and the approval of a supervisor.  Even Jeff’s story, which involves his misguided attempt to reunite with Liz, armed only with his rusty wit and unbridled misogyny, ends the way it’s supposed to.

Aubrey Plaza is excellent in her first major leading role, and I would love to see her break further away from her April Ludgate deadpan style (although she’s very good at it) in future roles; with this film, it’s plain to see she’s got plenty of diversity in her.

It’s also interesting to note that Darius is not only a male name, but it was the name of three different Persian kings.  As the Persians and Spartans didn’t much care for one another, consider, then, a character like Darius (and a film like Safety Not Guaranteed) the antithesis to the Explosion/Hunter-Gatherer films that we (the writers, thinkers, and attention-payers) no longer want to be dragged to and deafened by.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012); written by Derek Connolly; directed by Colin Trevorrow; starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson.

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