So, this weekend it was “Zero Dark Thirty,” at an actual cineplex. It became evident very quickly that I wouldn’t “enjoy” this film in the are-you-not-entertained sense of things, so I settled in to watch it with a certain detachment, trying to appreciate what was there to be appreciated. These things include:
Kathryn Bigelow’s always-arresting cinematography, which must have more to do with her than her directors of photography, because she seems to work with different ones on every film, but they all share a certain look. That is to say, very beautiful, with at least one shot or sequence you remember for a long time after — like the opening sequence of “The Hurt Locker,” or, in this film, the raid on the bin Laden compound, seen almost entirely in either underlit moonglow or in the green of the soldiers’ night-vision glasses.
Otherwise, visually, the film seems to consist of 90 percent closeups, usually on Jessica Chastain’s clenching jawline. I’m indebted to David Edelstein for this observation:
There has been speculation that Maya was inspired by the same (covert) CIA agent as Claire Danes’s bipolar Carrie in Homeland. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.” The parts and actresses could hardly be more different. Danes is a skin actor. She’s soft: You read her pores. Chastain is a muscle and tendons actor: You read the tension in her body.
That’s exactly right. She doesn’t have a lot of lines in this script; you spend many moments watching her eyes scan computer screens or watch a colleague torture detainees. But you never doubt where her head is at, and despite her lack of blah-blah, you can see the change in her from 2003-2011, and it rests almost entirely in her body. Great acting.
The torture. Yes, it’s hard to watch, but it’s presented in such a way that what goes on in these dirty rooms — the Middle East we see resembles a hotter, sun-blasted, better-populated but essentially desert version of Detroit — is just part of what has to happen. Again, Edelstein:
The torture is efficient and gets results. The outcry alluded to over abuses at Abu Ghraib screws up intelligence-gathering. The anti-torture stance of President Obama — who made the hunt for bin Laden a priority after Rumsfeld’s military let him slip out of Tora Bora, and gave the go-ahead to proceed with a mission that could have brought him down the way the catastrophic Iran rescue mission felled Jimmy Carter — is presented (via a TV interview) as an impediment. Dan the ace torturer tells Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” Crap: There go the dog collars.
The best you can do, going in, is be aware you’re being manipulated. This isn’t journalism.
Finally, I liked the way Bigelow avoided the easy audience-pleaser of letting us watch Osama bin Laden take the bullet that splatters his life on the wall. We follow the soldiers into the Abbottabad compound as though we’re the fourth man through the door — the camera jumps, the light is never where we want it, the kids are howling, the women are howling, the shots don’t go blam-blam-blam but pop-pop-pop. In the end, the best we get is an incomplete view of a Semitic nose and a gray beard, and Chastain’s face as she looks at what’s in the body bag. She doesn’t exult; she doesn’t even smile. Like many of us, she seems to know that even though this particular mission is accomplished, the war goes on and on and on.
It occurs to me that this is the second movie I’ve seen in about a year — the other one being “Contagion” — that manages to make problem-solving by smart people interesting and even exciting. The reality-based community shall prevail!
And now, it’s on to pot No. 4 of National Soup Month — roasted sweet potato.
And just one piece of bloggage today. How many of you live in a neighborhood or subdivision with a homeowners’ association? And how many of those homeowners’ associations have been taken over by petty tyrants? If so, you should enjoy this piece by the Evansville Courier, but you should especially enjoy the embedded audio clip of a telephone rant by said tyrant, who wants you to know that if the paper runs this story, there will be a legal lawsuit against them, and he wants to speak to the legal department right now, and rant some more, too.
May the Monday be with you, but not too much so.