Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’

Robert Aldrich’s 1977 Twilight’s Last Gleaming combines two distinct genres: the “men on a mission against long odds” adventure, a specialty of Aldrich is such films as Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen and even The Longest Yard (translated into underdog sports drama), and the conspiracy thriller that flourished in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. Aldrich wasn’t an overtly political filmmaker — his sensibility was more anti-authoritarian, his films innately suspicious of the motivations of those in power — but the Vietnam allegory of Ulzana’s Raid was hard to miss. Twilight’s Last Gleaming simply takes his commentary even further.

Burt Lancaster and Paul Winfield

Burt Lancaster (who had starred in three previous films for Aldrich) leads this mission as General Lawrence Dell, a patriotic career soldier and army officer who breaks out of military prison (where he was railroaded by the military brass trying to silence him) with a volatile group of military misfits, men who follow him out of greed rather than conscience or conviction. Their mission: take command of a military silo in Montana and hold the nation hostage for a small fortune and the release of a secret government document. For the men it’s all about the money but Dell, who served in Vietnam and survived a North Korean POW camp, demands that the truth of America’s involvement be released to the public. But it’s not about hurting the country, it’s about trusting its citizens with the truth and letting them decide on the next step forward.

First term American President David T. Stevens (Charles Durning) is appalled when he reads this document, and even more appalled that men in his own cabinet, career government and military men all, were not only involved in the conspiracy but are steadfastly against releasing the document. Which, of course, leads to a game of chicken between the terrorist patriot, who threatens to unleash nuclear missiles targeted on Russia if his demands are not met, and the government, whose attempts to break into the sealed silo only push them closer to war.

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