Tuesday, January 22, 2013

stevo movie review: "zero dark thirty"

"Where were you when
The world stopped turning,
On that September day? ..."

-- "Where Were You" by Alan Jackson.

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I'm not a huge movie person.  Give me a well-scripted, well-acted drama that unfolds over 22 hour long segments for six to seven seasons, and I'm all in.  Asking me to sit in a dark room with strangers for three hours, I tend to not be as giddy.

I was out sick yesterday, and was told not to come in today, even though I feel much better.  (Hooray no longer puking every hour.)  So, rather than waste my day watching whatever show had a marathon going on USA or TNT*, I decided to head out and finally watch the movie** I've been both anticipating and dreading seeing for some time now, "Zero Dark Thirty".

(*: for the record, "Law and Order: SVU" on USA; "Castle" on TNT.  And for the record, I love both shows.)

(**: at Ward Parkway, of course.  I'm telling you, it's the best movie theater in town.  Leather recliners for your actual seats.  They serve booze.  And they strictly enforce the "no talking, no texting, just sit in your damned seat, eat your $13 popcorn, and enjoy the damned movie" policy AMC prides itself on.  For the record, there were only seven people at the 11:15am showing of "Zero Dark Thirty" today, none under the age of about 25.  Perfect.)

So allow me to give my grade up front: 15-1*.  There honestly wasn't one thing in this movie I didn't enjoy.  There wasn't one scene that made me regret my $5 price of admission.  If anything, I thought the movie could have used another 40-45 minutes worth of material -- the stretch of time from the attack at the base in Afghanistan in December 2009, to the President signing off on the raid on May 1, 2011, needed more time devoted to it.  Other than that, I had no complaints.

(*: the Joe Theismann Rating Scale.  Still perfect all these years later.  You rate a film's overall acceptance to you, by giving it a NFL regular season record.)

Jessica Chastain is absolutely amazing as Maya, the CIA operative who spears the ten year search to "hunt, track, and kill" osama bin ladin.  I honestly do not recall ever seeing anything with her in it before; if she doesn't win the Academy Award for best actress next month, the system should be abolished, she's that phenomenal.

The film opens simply with the words "September 11, 2001" appearing in white against a black screen, and for the first five minutes of the movie, all you hear is the noise of that horrific day -- the desperate 911 calls, the first responder communications, even some of the network broadcast of the events of that day, with no image.  Just sound.  It's a haunting, absolutely jarring introduction into what I would argue is one of the finest films ever made.

You then are immediately knocked backwards again, as the opening scene with images, is of various CIA operatives torturing an al-quada operative in 2003.  Anyone delusional enough to argue that waterboarding isn't torture, needs to watch this scene, and realize they are wrong.  In this scene, I'd argue, is the reason why this film so hit me, and many others -- it simply depicts how things were.  It doesn't preach.  It doesn't rant.  It's not political, it's not designed to stir your emotions -- it's simply a raw, honest portrayal of what the standard operating procedure of this country's intelligence agents was in the aftermath of 9/11.

From there, you are jerked through many emotional highs and lows.  The terror attack at the hotel in Islamabad will jolt you -- you never see it coming when it hits.  Even when the violence is expected by you as a viewer (the attack on our base in Afghanistan by suicide bombers in late 2009), and you see it coming from half a mile away, Ms. Bigelow's directing is so impressive, you don't mind that you know what's coming -- you can't wait to see how she's going to meet your expectations for the scene about to unfold.  I'd argue the scene where the attack on our base occurs, the way it plays out, was at best the sixth best scene in the film ... and it's so good that you actually ache for Maya when her IM chat question, posted again and again, goes without response.

And time and time again, she more than meets your expectations.  She exceeds them.

The attack on the Afghanistan base is the catalyst in this film.  Everything in the hour or so leading up to that attack, was about the hunt to find ANYTHING on bin ladin's whereabouts.  From that attack onward, the film changes course, to becoming about the hunt to KILL the man.  As Maya's character explains in the aftermath of an attack on her as she attempts to leave her driveway: "I believe I was spared to finish the job".

(I should probably note, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a "who's who" dictionary of "that guy!" characters.  Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) plays the CIA director.  Michael (Harold Perrineau) from "Lost" plays Maya's closest confidant in Pakistan, and is the key to uncovering the clue that leads Maya to discover bin ladin's location.  Marshal Mars (Fredric Lehne) from "Lost" plays a CIA deputy who spearheads convincing the White House to go-ahead with the operation.  Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights" (Kyle Chandler) plays Maya's boss in the Middle East (and yeah, hearing Coach drop multiple f bombs was a bit shocking.  Mrs. Coach won't stand for that.)  Taylor Kinney from "Chicago Fire" plays one of the Seal Team Six heroes, and Chris Pratt (who played Che on "The OC"'s final season) plays another member of the team.  And there's at least five or six more people who you'll see and immediately think, "hey!  They played (insert person here) on (insert show or movie here)!")

The best running gag in the film, occurs after the attack in her driveway, when Maya is transferred back to CIA headquarters in Langley.  Every day, she erases the previous days' count, and writes up on her boss' office window the latest count in days since they unearthed the intelligence info on where she believes bin ladin is at, without anyone taking action.  (The count reaches 129, which both impresses and insults me.  Impresses, because the film also notes that "we had more proof of WMD's in Iraq" than proof that bin ladin was in the compound, so at least someone is finally exercising caution at Langley.  Infuriating, because the sketchy intel was right, and bin ladin lives at least four months longer than he could have.  Or should have.  It's what I expect from an Obama decision when it comes to foreign policy -- deliberate far longer than you need to ... then ultimately choose the right outcome.)

Once the CIA director sells the White House on going ahead with the mission to attack the compound (a scene not seen on screen), the final end game goes into motion, as Maya is introduced to the Seal team that will carry out her directive.  The scene where the end game finally gets underway, is both powerful and completely unexpected, and honestly, is my second favorite scene in the entire film.  Maya receives a phone call at the base in Afghanistan, where she's shooting the sh*t with the Seal team as they play a competitive game of horseshoes (and yes, they're gambling on the outcome.  I TOLD you this movie rocks!!!)  A simple phone call: "Maya?  It's a go."  "When?"  "Tonight.  Zero Dark Thirty."

I loved how simple this scene was, because sometimes, the great moments in life are completely understated, come completely out of nowhere.  Maya gets the call, and when she hangs up, she knows life has instantly changed.  Either she's just delivered our nation's most despised enemy into our hands ... or her entire career is over.  President Obama has signed off on her gut instinct.  It's a very powerful moment.

And it leads into my favorite scene in the film, as the two choppers prepare to depart for the mission.  The Seal team members load into the planes, and take off, and you're left with Maya, standing in the desert, as the choppers take off for their destination, and the look on her face ...

Isn't one of relief, or excitement, or anticipation, or happiness.

It's a look of fear, of terror, of "oh Christ, what did I just send these guys into?"  A look of horror that "what if I'm wrong?  What if one of my friends is killed, because I reached the wrong conclusion here?"  (You do get the sense, in the prior scene, that she has bonded with the Seal members, and they definitely have taken to her.  It probably doesn't hurt that she is smoking, smoking hot in this thing.  And please, female readers, save it.  You got Magic Mike, we got Maya in the desert.  Deal with it.)

It's a look of resigned acceptance, that others fate lay completely on your actions.

The raid of the compound plays out in real time, and it is beyond compelling.  You open with what seems like a throwaway, "break the ice" joke by the Seal team members about "who here hasn't crashed (in a helicopter) before!" ... only, we know that the mission nearly imploded at moment one, when one of the choppers did crash inside the compound while trying to drop off the Seal team members.  You see every moment of action as it happened, in real time -- the raid takes about forty minutes to play out, and every second of those forty minutes, you literally cannot take your eyes off the screen.

When you watch the raid play out, you'll not only understand why Secretary Clinton reacted as she did in the famous photo the White House released of the President and his Cabinet watching the attack unfold -- you will react in the exact same "HOLY (BLEEP)!  OH HOLY (BLEEP)!  OH HOLY (BLEEPING) (BLEEP)!!!" manner as the Secretary did, at least three times as the raid plays out.  Again, I loved how Ms. Bigelow simply shows reality as it unfolded, without judgment or commentary.  You see Seal's killing unarmed women and children in the initial panic of the attack ... and you see Seal's risking their lives to save women and children as things play out.

The killing of osama bin ladin is downplayed, and I think that's a good thing, actually.  The entire time the attack is underway, you find yourself rooting for, anticipating the moment, when bin ladin finally gets his earned reward for his actions ... and when the moment happens, it's actually a random, "what are the f*cking odds" moment that passes in an instant.  I thought that was perfect -- a worthless f*ck of a life, given no glory or credit or honor, at the moment his life ends.  You see one of the Seal's simply shoot a guy around the corner of the steps ... and that's it.  The Seal's think it's him.  But they don't care enough to confirm it -- they leave that for Maya.

The aftermath of the attack is fascinating as well.  Our heroes struggling to get everything of value that they could, before their safety was compromised.  Our heroes literally had less than ten minutes to somehow get bin ladin in a body bag, grab every hard drive, disc, video, and file in the joint, plus blow up the grounded chopper ... and they pull it off in a manner that makes it seem like a random Tuesday in the office for one of us mere civilians.

The film ends with the Seal's returning to the base, contraband to be bagged and tagged ... and with Maya walking to the back of the tent, to open the body bag to confirm it contains bin ladin, as President Obama* is on the phone with the CIA officer standing with her.  It's a great final scene, honestly.  Maya opens the bag.  You see his nose, and part of his forehead ... and you, like Maya, know it's him.  Know her hunch was right, and know we got him with no casualties for our efforts.

(*: it's never said, but strongly implied, that the President is on the other end of the conversation.)

And you, the viewer -- like Maya, the operative -- just want to zip the godd*mned bag up, and get the hell out of there, because while you are grateful the man is dead, you're so disgusted and repulsed by what you had to do, to get the end result, that you don't feel relief, you don't feel grateful, you just feel angry, you feel pissed off, at not just the sacrifices this capture and execution took ... but at the compromises of your integrity, the compromises of absolute right and wrong, that this entire journey made you make.

You're thrilled at the outcome -- after all, you got what you wanted ... and yet, you want to kill yourself out of disgust, for what it took to get the outcome you wanted.

"The Champ" and I had an argument last week at bowling league, over people who just take what they want in life, irregardless of what that means for other people.  He has a problem with people who do that, arguing that anything they gain from screwing over other people, they shouldn't be allowed to retain.  (And yes -- insert your "Hypocrisy 101" joke here for him.  Christ knows I have 55,000 times this week.)

Me?  I didn't necessarily disagree with the guy, but I did argue that "sometimes, you have to do wrong, to achieve a right, because it's the only way to make (the right) happen."

"Zero Dark Thirty" makes that argument, for two and a half hours, for all of us to judge.

And after two and a half hours, and a few hours of reflection and reviewing ... I still have no damned idea if compromising our principles, of what we SHOULD stand for, without question or reservation, as a nation, was worth it.  It's to this movie's credit, that it doesn't try to answer the question.

It leaves it to you, to decide the answer.  And for me?  I honestly have no idea, how to answer said question ...

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