Friday, February 22, 2013

Wide of the mark

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on February 16, 2013)



Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and others
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rating: 3 stars
If you took Zero Dark Thirty as insight into how the CIA works, this is what you’d walk out with: (a) If you don’t have evidence to back up your claims, hysterics will do nicely (b) If you use expletives, chances are you’ll be taken more seriously by your bosses (c) When you’re a woman, you’re allowed to ask for the impossible (d) CIA operatives look pleased with themselves every time they use the F-word.
Look, maybe the CIA does work that way – trading dialysis machines and V-10 Lamborghinis in return for phone numbers. Maybe Arabs will risk their lives as long as they’re supplied women and drinks. But, to fit all that into a plot that relies on the lone-gutsy-woman-in-a-man’s-field appeal is a show of amateur filmmaking unbefitting of a director of Kathryn Bigelow’s stature.
When the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is shoved into the mould of an action thriller, the storyline was always going to be thin. But with more than two and a half hours at her disposal, one cannot help but feel that Bigelow spent her time on all the wrong scenes. The film is engaging, albeit disturbing, when it opens to a blur of 911 calls as the World Trade Center is attacked. This is followed by more discomfiting scenes of duress, as CIA man Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures Ammar (Reda Kateb), a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
While it may be argued that the film is non-judgmental in the view it takes of the “war against terror”, one does detect an American jingoist element. There is no reference to America’s role in nurturing Osama Bin Laden to thwart the Soviets. Barack Obama’s decision to clamp down on torture is seen as an almost insurmountable hurdle, as if all intelligence was gleaned from waterboarding hardened terrorists, and not slipping money to more pliable informers. In fairness, though, the film does show us one detainee who refuses to break down, irrespective of what they do to him.
My main problem with the film is that it projects Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the hero whom no one will dare stand in the way of, without showing us what she has done to earn that respect. There’s no back story. She obsesses over a hunch, and is indulged by her superiors, discounting a few disparaging remarks. As justification for their acquiescence in her decisions, they tell each other – and her – how they’ve learnt not to go against her. But we don’t see where they learnt that from.
Unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this film offers us virtually no insight into the workings of a secret agency. We see nothing that we haven’t already read about in the news. Between taking us to the sites of the last decade’s biggest terrorist attacks – 9/11, 7/7, the Marriott Hotel bombing, the Times Square blast – the camera rests on exotic Asian markets, with sugarcane vendors, bun sellers, and betel juice spitters. Some laboured symbolism, involving monkeys, is thrown in.
The final undoing of the film is that, though it’s so carefully made that the settings are completely believable, the climactic chase actually gets boring. And, as an audience, we feel no sense of victory when the “good guys” gun down the bad ones, complete with a wife or two.
The Verdict: Thanks to its set pieces and macho lines, Zero Dark Thirty never lets us forget we’re watching a movie, with actors trying to play real people.

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