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Zero Dark Thirty

Videodrone: ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ‘Colonel Blimp,’ ‘Badlands’ and ‘Nanook’

Zero Dark Thirty (Sony) has been praised as the best American film of 2012. It’s also been accused of justifying American torture of detainees and turned into a political football by members of congress demanding an investigation into the intelligence provided to the filmmakers by the administration.

That’s testament to the complexity of the film and the volatile nature of the subject matter. The direction by Kathryn Bigelow, who won Oscars for Best Film and Best Director in her previous film “The Hurt Locker,” is fierce and focused and Mark Boal’s screenplay grapples with the messy history of the eight-year-long intelligence operation to find Osama Bin Laden by refusing to make a spy thriller out of it.

As in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty shows us what this kind war does to the soldiers in the field, in particular Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictionalized take on the real CIA agent who unrelentingly followed the slimmest of leads and synthesized seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a map that led to Bin Laden. But the focus is not on the personal sacrifice so much as on the enormity of the job and the tenacity of one agent (“Washington says she’s a killer,” is the one-sentence resume offered on her arrival) to doggedly follow the trail while the bureaucrats and politicians weigh resources and shift focus with each new threat. After the tension and anxiety builds through the investigation, Bigelow pays off with the raid on the compound, played out in real time without movie heroics.

This isn’t documentary, mind you, and Bigelow and Boal take some dramatic license in the details, but it’s in the service of exploring the real story of the investigation as well as the culture of intelligence work and the reality of agents in the field battling bureaucracy on the one hand and terrorists on their own home field on the other. It is intelligent, uncompromising, and utterly compelling, and it begins right off by showing the torture and waterboarding of a prisoner, a man that the lead interrogator (Jason Clarke) admits right off will never be released.

That’s the reality of the war on terror in 2003 and priority #1 is finding and capturing Bin Laden. By refusing to duck the role of torture, and even more daringly refusing to have Maya verbally condemn it, Bigelow drew some heat. While the government vainly tried to claim it somehow distorted American policy (when in fact the policy itself was distorted), others have charged that the film makes the case that torture was a successful tool, when in fact Bigelow and Boal show us that it never produced any information that wasn’t already gathered through other means, and failed to produce reliable intelligence on pressing threats.

Bigelow leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions — on the morality of torture as well as the effectiveness of it — and it appears to have become a Rorschach test for audiences. The controversy fueled interest in the film but it may have cost Bigelow an Oscar nomination for her direction, which by my measure is the most accomplished and the most gripping American film of 2012.

It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Chastain), and Best Original Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing (shared with Skyfall), and it was the number one choice on MSN’s critics’ poll.

The Blu-ray and DVD both present four featurettes, all under ten minutes. “The Compound” is the longest of them and it is indeed a guided tour of the set built to serve as the Bin Laden compound. “Geared Up” looks at the equipment used by the actors playing SEAL Team Six and the training they went through for the invasion scene and “Targeting Jessica Chastain” is a brief profile of the Chastain and the character of Maya. Though brief, they offer a lot of detail on the preparation and research behind the production. The least of the supplements, in fact, is “No Small Feat,” which purports to be the “making of” production but is actually a four-minute promotional piece. The Blu-ray also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion), an unconventional wartime drama from The Archers (director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger), was made against the wishes of the British government and went on to become one of the most beloved British films of all time.

This dashing, deft epic begins with the dinosaur of an old soldier, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (a curmudgeonly Roger Livesay in a bald cap and walrus mustache), getting ambushed by the new young army in an attempt to jolt the old man out of his outdated notions of a “gentleman’s war” against the Nazis, and then drifts back to show just how Candy got here. Livesay is warm and witty as an ambitious young officer with a prankster’s streak, who becomes devoted to his German rival (Anton Walbrook) and falls in love with a series of beautiful women (all of them played by Deborah Kerr), all the while petrifying as the world changes around him over the course of three wars.

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Men on a Mission

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.

Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.

While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.


Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.

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