Film review – Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

29 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Maya (Jessica Chastain)

Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have taken the true story behind the manhunt for Osama bin Laden to craft an excellent police procedural. Zero Dark Thirty follows the frequently frustrated effects of a CIA officer named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who has to contend with false leads, dead-ends, personal attacks, the death of colleagues and a fundamental ideological shift in the Whitehouse, to create a basic narrative drive that provides a more satisfying experience than Bigelow and Boal’s previous film, the episodic The Hurt Locker (2008). When Zero Dark Thirty delivers its thrilling climax to depict the fateful operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death, Bigelow delivers an astonishing sequence of suspense/action cinema. With cinematographer Greig Fraser, Bigelow provides the audience with an almost first person perspective of the US Navy SEALs as they go about their deadly mission. The screen appears to be in complete darkness, yet just enough light is filtered into the camera so that viewers can make-out what is going on during the methodical high-stakes mission. It is exhilarating cinema that makes you want to forget all the questionable issues of representation that have come before it.

As an allegedly authentic account of events that is supposedly free from political motivation, Zero Dark Thirty sets itself up as being immune from criticism. However, no film exists in a political or cultural vacuum and by adopting the faux-cinema vérité style that is currently associated with cinematic realism, Bigelow’s film should be especially held up for scrutiny for the way it portrays recent sensitive subject matter that influences public debate over important issues. Depiction may not equate to endorsement, but particular types of representation do. And the big question with Zero Dark Thirty is how does it represent the alleged benefits of torture?

For a start Zero Dark Thirty does not soften or conceal the barbarity of torture. Nor does it deny that it was used by the US under the double-speak terminology of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and as Alex Gibney demonstrated in his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, never officially sanctioned but ambiguously endorsed to prevent anybody too important ever being held accountable. In this regard, Zero Dark Thirty is commendable for presenting torture as inhumane, soul-destroying for the perpetrators and fatal in terms of losing significant moral ground for the US. The acts Bigelow depicts reflect what is described in Taxi to the Dark Side and dramatised in Michael Winterbottom’s powerful 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. The big question is if like those films does Zero Dark Thirty adhere to the current understanding and evidence that torture is ineffective or does it perpetuate the idea that torture is a necessary evil required to yield results?

It is a murky issue and there are many aspects to suggest the film is not endorsing torture as useful. The change of government during the period that ended the detainee project is shown to annoy many of the CIA agents. However, there is also a scene where a government official speaks about the importance of good intelligence and that the previous false intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq proved how disastrous it is to rely on information taken from detainees under duress. During the first half of the film where the investigation is centred on the intelligence-gathering from tortured detainees, the investigation gets nowhere and there are terrible setbacks. Later when the detainee program has ended and the manhunt has to rely on investigative work, good results occur. Towards the end of the process Maya is told that her desire to find bin Laden has become more a personal fixation wrapped up in revenge rather than a homeland security priority, putting the eventual outcomes into jingoist-free context.

The main question revolves around a key piece of information about one of bin Laden’s couriers. This information is shown in the film to be pivotal to finding bin Laden and it is discovered during the scenes in the film where the CIA is using torture. The waters are muddied by the fact that the information is represented as being given by detainees when they are being treated compassionately, suggesting that the film is showing the inadequacies of torture after all. However, the compassion is portrayed as only being effective for having been applied after the torture has occurred. One man speaks of having experienced torture already so rather than go through that again, willingly gives up the information when asked. Before Maya and her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) get the information from another man, they speak about how to best exploit his loss of short-term memory and general disorientation due to the sleep-deprivation and long-term isolation that they have subjected him to.

While Zero Dark Thirty represents the acts of torture as inhumane and probably unnecessary since most of the positive results occur without the detainee program, it nevertheless ultimately endorses them by linking the information of the courier gained under torture as crucial to discovering where bin Laden was hiding. While the film should be commended for depicting the harsh reality that the ‘good guys’ stooped to the level of the ‘bad guys’ it is worrying that it seems to ultimately suggest the means justified the ends. Furthermore, it makes the audience complicit in the acts, encouraging us to condemn them in our minds while relishing them in our heart. The film opens with a torture scene right after an emotive sound montage of people making desperate emergency calls from within the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. A shot of an exploding bus in the London attacks on 7 July 2005 cuts to Dan playfully feeding an ice cream to his pet monkeys. The edit both humanises his actions as a torturer and gives them a sense of importance and urgency. If torture had been proven to yield results in locating bin Laden, or if it can be proven to be effective at all, then Zero Dark Thirty could be excused for representing the cold hard truth. But this is currently not the case.

As an important sidenote, it is also worth evaluating how Bigelow presents Maya, who is played brilliantly by Chastain. Similar to Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1989), Zero Dark Thirty has as a protagonist an authoritative woman in a mostly male environment. For the most part, Bigelow avoids references to Maya’s gender with a significant exception at the end when in the same sentence she is referred to as ‘the agency expert’ and ‘the girl’; very effectively suggesting that no matter how much professional recognition she will achieve, there are some who will define her for being other than a man. A great earlier scene undermines all regressive expectations regarding female characters when the question of Maya having an affair with Dan is raised and she immediately dismisses the idea as ludicrous since they are professionals working together. It is odd that Bigelow then chooses Maya to be initially antagonistic with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), the only other female character on her team, but otherwise Maya is a given much of the narrative privileges that male characters usually receive in terms of remaining a sympathetic and strong character despite the growing character flaws as she increasingly loses her humanity and perspective.

Where Zero Dark Thirty ultimately leaves the discerning, political-aware cinema viewer is something of a quandary. One easy way out is to simply condemn the whole film for making entertainment out of recent events that lead to the death of a person, albeit somebody whom very few people will shed any tears for. But that would mean condemning nearly every war film or any film that depicts tragic historical events. Zero Dark Thirty is impressive filmmaking that is gripping from start to finish. On purely filmic terms it deserves celebrating. But how this filmmaking presents issues concerned with events and issues that still influence foreign policy all over the world needs to be debated rigorously. And perhaps only then and after an extended period of time will we be able to decide if Zero Dark Thirty is closer in spirit to The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) or Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, Leni Riefenstahl, 1935).

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Coriolanus (2011)

7 March 2012
Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)

Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)

One of the many reasons for the longevity of William Shakespeare’s plays are their timeless insights into human behaviour. While many of the comedies focus on how love, desire, jealousy and pride motivate us, the histories and tragedies contain searing insights into politics, use and abuse of power, and the tension between public and private life. Shakespeare’s plays have therefore long been ideal for modern interpretations as regardless of when or where the plays were originally set or written, their content can be used to make potent commentaries on other periods and times that are more familiar and relevant to the audience. More akin to a classical Greek tragedy than most of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, Coriolanus hasn’t been adapted into a film until now. Its brutal and cynical depiction of politics, the military and public life renders it less accessible than the plays with a more sympathetic tragic hero or even empathetic anti-hero. However, it is the play’s brutality and cynicism that director and lead actor Ralph Fiennes explores to make this new adaptation disturbingly relevant and modern.

The setting, ambiguously written as ‘a place calling itself Rome’, is a contemporary grey, decaying industrial city. Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia before the 2011 London riots, but the large English cast, scenes of civil upset and themes of class conflict uncannily evoke the images televised during those events. Fiennes possibly planned to make Coriolanus as a statement about a once powerful European nation in decline with allusions to war-torn eastern European states, Northern Ireland conflicts and 1980s English riots during the Thatcher era, but he seems to have inadvertently created a premonition of things to come in England.

Fiennes is an imposing figure as Caius Martius Coriolanus, the commander of the army in a time of war and civilian food shortages. With his shaved head, scarred face and bulked up physique, he’s portrayed as a fierce warrior who walks a fine line between honour and arrogant self-righteousness. He’s the ideal tool for the type of authoritarian government that pretends to be listening to the will of the people as he can be used against the starving rioters, but his war record also makes him into a national hero and therefore a political weapon to gain votes. Most interestingly is the dynamic where Coriolanus becomes championed by the actual people he previously oppressed, displaying Shakespeare’s razor sharp observations on how fickle and easily led the voting public can be, and the peculiar dynamic where the public are often persuaded to support political parties and ideologies that do them the most harm.

The middle section of the film deals with Coriolanus’s public image, and Fiennes stages many of the scenes as if they were happening during a political chat show or filmed news report. Not all of the attempts at restaging crowd forum scenes as fiery debates in a television studio work as seamlessly as Fiennes no doubt would have liked, simply because such scenes feel too small and contained to truly suggest today’s global audiences and mass media. However, Shakespeare may be forgiven for not foreseeing the scope of media influence since his observations about political rhetoric, especially the vast chasm between what public figures say and what they really think, are chillingly relevant.

Both sides of politics come across as particularly grubby, respectively exploiting Coriolanus’s perceived glories or perceived faults for the benefit of their own political careers. While it would have been easy to portray Coriolanus as an unsympathetic brute, Fiennes does a remarkable job in later scenes at making the audience momentarily understand the contempt he displays towards the public and his new political peers. Similarly, while his ruthless determination as a soldier make him a frightening presence in the civilian world, he does elicit some sympathy from being shunned for being a soldier in peace time presumably by the same society that wanted him to be a soldier during wartime. In this respect there are even traces of John Rambo from First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) within Fiennes’s Coriolanus.

It is the grimness of the world created by Fiennes that allows for a glorified thug like Coriolanus to appear moderately justified in key scenes of the film, and the uncomfortable confusion this elicits from the audience is a real strength. The character is further developed through the portrayal of his relationship to his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), which is not so much Oedipal in affection as more regressive where she dotes over him like a child, to the exclusion of his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Coriolanus’s infantilism becomes most pronounced when shunned and banished by the state he responds by joining forces with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to lead his insurgent-like army against Rome in revenge.

The dramatic change from loyal patriot to deadly traitor is not only the act of a child who hasn’t got their own way, but also that of somebody who is self-destructive. Previous scenes where Coriolanus appears to be opposed to hearing his achievements and glories exalted publicly suggest intense modesty, but it fits the pattern of a rage filled man who hates his enemies, hates his fellow citizens and most of all hates himself. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most damning depictions of public life and the psychology of a career soldier, and Fiennes’s adaptation is a reflection of spin, media influence in public debate, the cult of personality and the glorification of war.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Take Shelter (2011)

13 October 2011
Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a good life and is told so by his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), who admires Curtis’s family and the home in Ohio that he has built around him. Curtis is a good husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a good father to their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His construction job not only brings in a decent salary but it also provides an excellent insurance plan that will help cover the costs of upcoming surgery for Hannah. And yet despite all of this, Curtis is having vivid nightmares and waking visions of an approaching apocalyptic storm and mysterious figures who threaten his family. While terrified by what he is seeing, Curtis is also grimly aware that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his paranoia and visions intensify, Curtis becomes obsessed with building an elaborate tornado shelter while trying to understand what is happening to him psychologically.

Films about mental illness often present a character loosing their grasp on reality as a melodramatic tragedy or even occasionally as something that is quaintly liberating, as if that character now has a privileged view of the world. Attempts to depict how a mentally ill character views the world tend to be hysterical and romantically tormented rather than insightful. Conditions such as schizophrenia are frequently confused with various personality disorders, resulting in a common misbelief that people with schizophrenia are likely to be criminally violent. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing to see such an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of a man experiencing the early signs of schizophrenia in Take Shelter.

Take Shelter: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols establishes early that Curtis is aware that something is not right, rather than making him a passive character who succumbs to his condition. Curtis seeks help and tries to understand what is happening to him. What makes the film so dramatically interesting is that while he is able to realise he is seeing and hearing things that are not there, he doesn’t have the same self-recognition in regards to his growing paranoia. So while seemingly aware that his premonitions about the coming storm are imagined, he still compulsively pours time, money and resources into building the shelter despite the effect it has on his work and his family. The shelter becomes symbolic of his subconscious; something for him to retreat into while the storm hopefully passes above him. Curtis also begins to increasingly distrust those around him, most tragically those he has the most intense feelings for, beginning with the family dog who gets cast out of the house after he dreams it attacked him.

Michael Shannon has portrayed mentally unstable characters several times in the past, in films such as Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. His unconventional brooding looks give him a commanding and mysterious presence on screen that makes him so suitable for such roles. In Take Shelter he eclipses everything he has done previously with what will more than likely be a career-defining performance. As Curtis’s wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain plays a role similar to the supportive and strong mother and wife role she had in The Tree of Life. However, she gets a lot more to do in Take Shelter and like Shannon, delivers a beautiful performance. Despite the fears, confusion and anger she feels for what Curtis is going through, and putting her through, she remains by his side. The most powerful moments in the film involve either Samantha’s devastating responses to Curtis’s suffering or her determined confrontations with him. Take Shelter paints an extraordinary picture of what it means to unconditionally love somebody, making the representation of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage something profoundly moving.

Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)The final scene in Take Shelter is a little perplexing and if the rest of the film hadn’t been so well crafted and clearly considered, it would be tempting to dismiss the final moments as literal and therefore undermining a lot of what the film had previously done to present the nature of Curtis’s visions. However, upon reflection it feels far more like a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion in order to present the world that Curtis, and by extension his family, now must live in. It’s one of many aspects about the film that will leave audiences lost deep in their thoughts throughout the rest of the day after seeing it.

There is so much empathy and understanding in the way Take Shelter creates an engaging story out of a widely misunderstood condition. It is one of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. It certainly makes films like The Beaver feel incredible superficial by comparison. The cinematic effects used to evoke Curtis’s visions create a vivid impression of his condition without ever feeling exploitive. The slow burning nature of the drama means that a number of incredibly tense moments creep up without warning to make so much of Take Shelter heartbreakingly suspenseful.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Tree of Life (2011)

30 June 2011
The Tree of Life: Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

Jack (Hunter McCracken), Steve (Tye Sheridan) and Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. Terrence Malick has created a film with a quality that is rarely seen in modern cinema. Similarly to A Serious Man, The Tree of Life examines the lives of one family to explore the core question from The Book of Job of why is it that good people suffer. How can anybody believe in God in a universe that feels so godless? In the prologue to the film Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother of the family, narrates, ‘There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.’ Shortly after receiving the news of the death of her middle child the film switches to the perspective of her eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult. It’s the anniversary of his brother’s death and by remembering his childhood he attempts to reconcile his conflict with the way of nature and the way of grace. The memories that then unfold on the screen not only position this conflict within the dynamic between his mother and his father (Brad Pitt), but also within the collective memory of all of creation from the Big Bang onwards.

To a degree Malick picks up where Stanley Kubrick left off with his epic exploration of humanity’s place in the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A visual link between both films is established by the distinctive imagery by special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull so that the creation of the universe sequence towards the start of The Tree of Life is something of an echo of the Star Gate sequence at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thematically Malick is possibly even bolder than Kubrick by channelling the immense creation themes through the experiences of a single family living in suburbia in 1950s Waco, Texas. More specifically, through Jack’s childhood memories so that like Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the recollections are segmented and combined with small non-naturalistic moments to reflect what impressions remained with Jack into his adult life. Memories of sibling rivalry, emerging sexuality and domestic conflict are mixed in with images such as his mother floating above the ground as she describes her joy of flying in a plane. Malick’s real stroke of genius is conveying the impression of an individual childhood as being as significant – and as filled with wonder, beauty and danger – as the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

The Tree of Life: Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

Mr and Mrs O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain)

The Tree of Life suggests a continual battle between nature, as a sort of Darwinist survival of the fittest, and grace, as a spiritual belief that kindness and love exists beyond the survival mechanism. Jack’s mother is clearly on the side of grace with a religious faith that sees her extending compassion wherever she can. Filled with professional disappointments and resentments, Jack’s father supports the ‘natural’ idea of an indifferent universe. Despite his love for his sons he increasingly becomes emotionally abusive by projecting his frustrations onto his family. The conflict is one Jack as an adult is still struggling with and it is a conflict Malick suggests predates humanity. In an extraordinary scene during the creation of the world sequence, a predatory dinosaur moves in to kill a weaker dinosaur and then reconsiders, to instead respond in a way that hints at a sort of primordial kindness. Does this early moment suggest that there is actually no battle between grace and nature at all since grace always existed within nature?

The possibility of the existence of something greater than the physical world is strongly explored in The Tree of Life. Malick is deliberately ambiguous in this regard, which is appropriate given just how far he delves into unknown terrain. However, we do get a glimpse of something that exists both beyond time and space, but also within humanity’s collective conscious. This may be what Mrs O’Brien interprets as heaven, but it seems closer aligned to the eighteenth-century aesthetic and philosophical notion of the sublime. It also evokes the belief from many early cultures that there is a place outside of the physical world where all spirits reside waiting to be born again (as expressed, for example, in the Indigenous Australian film Ten Canoes) although this is articulated in The Tree of Life as a place where memories of the living are also present.

The Tree of Life: Jack (Sean Penn)

Jack (Sean Penn)

However, The Tree of Life is not simply a conceptually or philosophically complex exercise, but a film of stunning beauty that seductively immerses the viewer. The camera is constantly moving, the sound is intricately designed so that the dialogue and voiceovers have a musical quality, and every shot is composed with Malick’s trademark perfection. There is a constant sense of momentum in The Tree of Life and the film even seems to speed by quicker on subsequent viewings. It is a film that demands to be seen multiple times to truly appreciate its complexity and artistry, but even a single screening is enough to make jaded viewers sit up, startled by the sensation of experiencing such cinematic lyricism.

Malick has clearly shot hours upon hours of footage of the interaction between the actors playing the O’Brien family members and then cut down that footage to create an impressionist montage of their lives. The strongly naturalistic performances by the actors ensure that the film does remain grounded amid the overwhelming use of film style. Penn delivers the muted anguish felt by adult Jack in small gestures and glances. Pitt’s performance is possibly his best to date as a fearful man who is also deeply vulnerable. Newcomer Hunter McCracken as young Jack along with Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as his two brothers come across like seasoned professionals. However, this film really belongs to Chastain who is an absolute revelation as the silent, strong and unconditionally loving mother of the family.

Terrence Malick has never made a film anything short of extraordinary, but he has surpassed himself with The Tree of Life and produced a masterpiece that will surely only continue to grow in stature and significance over time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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