[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.
First they made TheHurtLocker; 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.
ZeroDarkThirty, 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 TheLostPatrol (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, BadLands (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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Oliver Procane, eccentric planner of multimillion-dollar ripoffs, has been impotent all his life; he enjoys spending his non-criminal time watching silent masterpieces by Vidor and Griffith. It’s entirely possible that J. Lee Thompson & co. were inviting congratulatory inferences here: anybody who appreciates good moviemaking must be a bit of a wimp, so let’s hear it for our manhood! If this be the rationale, St. Ivesis one hell of an advertisement for a stud service. This movie is so bad that when the convoluted action takes us to a drive-in movie the same film clips can be glimpsed four times (and no, this wasn’t an exercise in staggered chronology à la The Killing—it was just staggering); that when you see Jackie Bisset in bed in longshot she’s lying on her back, but when you cut to a medium closeup she’s sitting up with a thigh hanging out; that even though the film is punctuated by Siegel-like titles (… LOS ANGELES 11:00 A.M. OCTOBER 25), temporal continuity is so shoddy the hero is privileged, on several occasions, to reveal that he made a little phonecall during some offscreen time and therefore it is perfectly permissible for the cavalry to come to his rescue…. At first it seems that we have here another howler of a miscasting job for Charles Bronson—he’s a semi-starving novelist (who nevertheless maintains a swell wardrobe in his fleabag hotelroom)—but this too is retroactively defused: well, you see, he’s trying to be a novelist, he used to be a crackerjack crime reporter, although guys who have been on the police force long enough to make detective never heard of him….