Saturday, December 7, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty & Unthinkable

2012, Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, The Hurt Locker) -- download
2010, Gregor Jordan (Ned Kelly) -- download

How do you feel about torture as a method of interrogation? What about when circumstances are extremely dire? What if the subject is a fanatic, completely convinced their evil acts are in the right? This is a story that has been going on in the US, and honestly, around the westernized world for the past decade. Oh, the conversation was there long before that but when 9/11 happened and Guantanamo opened, and stayed open, the theories became reality. The west will do whatever it takes to get the information they need, to make sure such an event never happens again.

Zero Dark Thirty is the movie about the hunt for Bin Laden. We are led through it via the obsessions of Maya, who has been collecting data about Al Qaeda since high school, from where she was plucked by the CIA. We meet her in 2003 when she is assigned to the Al Qaeda task force and follow her until ... well, she succeeds. This is a movie set as a window into the fact that there were people completely and utterly dedicated to finding out who orchestrated the terrible attack and ending him. Its.a response to the US publick who constantly asked their government, "What are you guys doing?!? Why isn't that evil men dead already?!?"

As a Canadian, I didn't feel the events as an American would. But I remember thinking that the days when the US would take tempered measures against their enemies were over. I was actually only mildly surprised that things take a darker turn, but that was probably seeded by my years of reading dark urban future fiction. That there are dark, hidden places run by the US, out of country and out of jurisdiction, is not surprising. That they string up people and torture them for information is not surprising. I never really expected it to be just an element of spy fiction. What was surprising is that the story shows them dispensing with it very soon, realizing not much of the info is reliable. So they are forced to move onto other measures -- data gathering and analysis.

Much of the movie is bureaucratic and operational, showing dirty offices and tired people, not-tirelessly pouring over documentation and videos about various operatives Al Qaeda has around the world. Maya is convinced that the idea that Bin Laden is holed up in an Afghani hill fort is ridiculous. She cannot imagine a man in utter control of a global terror group would be without phones and computers. And she is right. Through meticulous detail gathering and more than a bit of luck, she is responsible for driving the research that finds him.

When we actually reach the action that invades (and what else can you call it) a Pakistan neighbourhood to find the bearded man in his compound, the movie slides into a standard military thriller. We have real scifi style black helicopters and over eager combat specialists. it is not as exciting as one would expect nor should it be; its depicting reality, not a Michael Bay action flick. While this may be the climax of the movie, it was more denoument for me.

This movie looked good and acted good. The roles are engaging and the people invested but I was left cool. Its just too much of a straight forward line to the already known end game. There wasn't much to sink your teeth into. Think of the liberties Afleck took with Argo and this is not here. You can commend Bigelow for that but I was hoping for a bit more; its a Hollywood movie afterall. At least Chastain was as brilliant as always.

So if Zero Dark Thirty was a big movie, set around the world with a big cast and great sets and locations, conversely, Unthinkable is what you would expect from a straight to some format movie -- few sets, a few stars and a very small plot. Almost all of it takes place in an abandoned high school where they are torturing, yes out and out torturing a domestic terrorist who is set to commit an act that would make 9/11 pale in comparison.

Low budget movies have the opportunity to blow out their plots. A gritty, more realistic movie would make the act more recognizable but this movie is full of dirty bombs in major american cities and extreme uncomfortable torture scenes. Its all about raising the stakes and seeing what the protagonists need to do in response. Where Zero Dark Thirty only briefly approached the torture, this movie is all about it. It is a bottle episode trope, where all the action takes place in one room. And that room is a torture room. This movie wants to ask the question and have someone actually sit at both ends of the extreme. We have a torturer (Samuel L Jackson) and a noble FBI agent (Carrie Ann Moss) who is in disbelief at the acts Jackson performs on the homegrown terrorist (Michael Sheen).

This is not a great movie, somewhat heavy handed (somewhat?) and melodramatic. And we know what the answers will be going in. It is OK to torture when the situation demands, as long as someone asks the questions of how far they are willing to go. But really? Is that the only moral answer for such things? Ambiguity? While the movie does directly tackle torture, not masked in a thriller or espionage movie, it never really is willing to present people truly convinced of their ideals. To ask the questions in fiction, you need the person willing to belief what they believe despite the consequences. You do not need to depict people displaying opinions from both sides. THAT is too simplistic and never really allows the audience to ask themselves what they belief. But in comparison, as two movies in response to terrorism, it was an interesting exercise.