Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

A film that begins with an insurgent being tortured into revealing crucial intelligence? Surely they follow that with one of the characters making a speech about the wrongness of torture? What, there isn't so much as a single line about the futility of torture but instead they portray the torturers sympathetically, as non-sadistic people who take no visible pleasure in their task? There must have been a scene where the victim of torture is revealed to be utterly innocent at the very least, right? Nope, he's responsible for a terrorist attack. Then there can be no other conclusion except that Zero Dark Thirty is a pro-torture film! 

But see, I'm not referring to ZDT: Those are scenes from Gillo Pontecorvo's award winning film, The Battle of Algiers (1965) which is today acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made and has the distinction of being one of the few films that was compulsory viewing for guerrilla movements and counter-revolutionary forces alike. The film gives the clear impression that Algiers dissidents were crushed thanks to information received through torture. Even though later reports from the Algerian revolution reveal that torture was not as instrumental in obtaining intelligence, it would be quite a stretch of imagination to call the film "pro-torture".

So why the double standards for Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden? The Academy Awards were handed out yesterday and ZDT has been properly screwed over in every category because of the controversy over its  depiction of torture and deviance from fact. Ironically, all accolades went to the utterly undeserving Argo which, at best, had a rather tenuous grip over the meaning of 'fact'. Before I watched ZDT, I was horrified that anybody would release a film that was pro-torture propaganda. Now that I have watched the film, I realize that Bigelow's brilliant film has been completely misunderstood; Zero Dark Thirty is among the best war/political films I've seen in recent times and is very reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers in the way it dispassionately, almost clinically, dissects the events surrounding bin Laden's death.

One of the first scenes from ZDT, when the detainee who was defiant through the torture sessions breaks down when he is handed a bottle of orange juice, hating himself for feeling gratitude towards his captors reminded me of a very similar scene in the beginning of The Battle of Algiers where the revolutionary is lying there, broken after the torture, and weeps when he is handed a French uniform. While it is difficult to watch a man being beaten into submission, it is downright heartrending to watch a man's dignity being stripped. In case you missed it, that was the film-makers humanizing the dreaded Al-Qaeda even as the torturers were de-humanizing them: something that Hollywood has been incapable of doing thus far.

Oddly enough, if you see what the critics are saying, they aren't saying tortu-- oops I mean enhanced interrogation techniques are not used by the CIA or that black sites don't exist; they're saying that the CIA didn't use torture to catch bin Laden. And the CIA doesn't use crude methods like dog collars! Those are the mainstays of low level military police, the CIA only use water-boarding and there are doctors monitoring the detainees' health! And torture doesn't even work, you guys so that's why ZDT is a dishonest movie. But for a film-maker, saying all of that in a movie is the easy, Oscar-baiting way out. The difficult question is:  what if it did work? What if torture did lead to the capture of bin Laden? Films are not about faithful adherence to events (and some are certainly more than just entertainment) but are about posing questions that we may not want to hear the answer to. To me, ZDT was not endorsing the view that torture did lead to the capture of bin Laden. To me, the film was asking us if robbing countless men and women of their humanity and dignity was worth the price of shooting an (allegedly) unarmed man in the head in the middle of the night; a man that hadn't been seen in years; a man that the US Government itself had lost interest in. All that the SEALS left behind were scared, wailing children and a blood stain on the floor, while patting each other on the back for getting Public Enemy No. 1. But the genius of ZDT is that  it never passed any judgment either way: there were no maudlin speeches about how sad torture is or any Col Nathan R Jessup/ army types telling us that reality is harsh and war needs torture. The film only asks us if we can afford the bill at the end of the meal.

If you are going to watch a film by a major Hollywood studio to look for the truthful version of a historical event, you're doing it wrong.

But more than anything, ZDT was a very personal film a woman's dogged pursuit of bin Laden. Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) has a hunch that she simply wouldn't let go of for 12 years-- even though she's been targeted by terrorist groups and everybody from her boss to the dog walker have asked her to simply let it go. And Maya keeps us and her colleagues at arm's length-- she texts during meals, she wont suck up the higher ups, rarely smiles and is a bit of a recluse. But at the end of the film, Maya when the goal she has been working for her entire adult life has been achieved, when she has nothing left except tears, we finally share common ground with her. Are there any of us that have not feared the utter emptiness that follows the achievement of one's life goals?  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Early on in this transcendent  movie, we find its lead trio at a late night car drive. A song comes up on the radio, a song which we know as David Bowie's anthemic Heroes, but one that they don't yet recognize. They instantly fall in love with it, and Emma Watson's character commands her step-brother  who is at the wheel to drive through "the tunnel", even as our wallflower protagonist Charlie looks on in confusion.  As they get to this tunnel, Watson stands up and spreads her arms above her head. Charlie looks up at her, watching in wonder as she is illuminated by golden streaks of tunnel light.eve Meanwhile, Bowie's chorus crashes and pulses.

"I feel ... infinite" he says.

That, precisely, is how the movie made me feel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower centers around Charlie -  His closest friend's killed himself the year before and he starts his freshman year painfully shy and alone, desperately counting down the days before he's able to get away. That is, until one fine night he summons the courage to sidle up to senior Patrick  at a football game . He's soon joined by Patrick's step sister Sam (Emma Watson, finally NOT evoking Hermione!) and before he knows it, the boundaries of his life start falling away.

This simple enough coming-of-age story is rendered extraordinary through the manner in which it zeroes in on relatable moments with considerable nuance, or the way in which its characters are so likeable without the movie trying any manipulative tactics to make them superhuman. The incalculable excitement of meeting and connecting with a group of strangers, the nervous joy of realizing a new set of friendships, and the terror of   losing them - Perks swings for the fences with its big bruising heart, and connects every single time.

It helps that it gets in a trio of great performances -    As our wallflower, Logan Lerman perfectly captures the awkwardness and subdued charm of the central character. He's also good with physical comedy - cue the part where he attempts to shuffle up to Sam and Patrick on the dancefloor, doing what can only be described as a variation of the snake dance. For Emma Watson, this is her first real post-Potter test, and she acquits herself remarkably. Her Sam is a character at once tough and vulnerable, self-assured and simultaneously on the verge of important realizations about herself. "We accept the love we think we deserve" says Charlie's English teacher, and it is a lesson that she in particular must learn over the course of the film. The revelation for me though was Ezra Miller's Patrick, whose livewire presence gives the movie a burst of vitality every time he's onscreen.

Ultimately,  The Perks of Being of a Wallflower does the remarkable feat of maintaining a tone of bittersweet melancholy through its running time, while also proving hilarious in its acute observations. Nostalgia permeates its frames - the movie somehow feels like a recounted memory, even though it is told in a present-day chronological manner. Fitting then, considering what a memorable cinematic experience it is.