Watching “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained”
Oscar nominations came out last week, and I decided to just go ahead and get the two most controversial nominees out of the way. And boy am I glad I did! “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained” are both terrific, thought-provoking films that raise interesting and disturbing questions, are incredibly well-crafted and well-acted and approach their stories with creativity and intelligence.
“Zero Dark Thirty” tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and I’ll say up front that unless a film is a documentary, I expect the events depicted on screen to deviate from what really happened. So I approached ZDK as a work of fiction, based on a true story. I mentioned this because the film is under fire for its depiction of torture; critics say that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal wrongly suggest that the torture of detainees played a key role in helping nab Osama in Laden, while others have defended the film, saying it actually suggests that torture was not the most effective tool for tracking the elusive terrorist leader. I mostly fall into the latter camp, and feel that the debate over whether Bigelow and Boal are endorsing torture distracts from some of the more interesting themes and issues contained within “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” opens with torture, depicting the violent and disturbing interrogation of a detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb) at one of the CIA’s black sites in Pakistan. Veteran CIA officer Dan (Jason Clarke) beats Ammar, leads him around with a dog collar, waterboards him and has him stuffed in a small box when he refuses to provide information about when and where a terrorist attack is taking place. This scene provides new CIA agent Maya (best actress nominee Jessica Chastain) with her first glimpse of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, and although the violence appears to repulse her, she stays in the room, even when Dan tells her that there’s no shame in leaving and watching events from the outside monitor. The torture of Ammar fails to yield the necessary information, and a deadly attack does occur, in Saudi Arabia. However, Dan and Maya see an opportunity: Ammar is disoriented from being tortured, and they decide to try to trick him into thinking that he gave them the information they were seeking. Over a nice, comfortable meal, they tell him he helped save lives, and Ammar provides the name of bin Laden’s courier — the man who will eventually lead them to bin Laden himself.
I say eventually because the torture of Ammar takes place a couple years after Sept. 11, 2001, and bin Laden is not actually captured until 2011. Bigelow depicts the hunt for bin Laden as tedious, difficult, dangerous work that takes a great toll on the men and women responsible for finding him and preventing future terrorist attacks. The affable Dan grows weary of torturing detainees, and takes a desk job back in D.C.; Maya, meanwhile, grows increasingly obsessed with finding the courier, and has virtually no social life. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the U.S. is not faring particularly well in the war on terror: Terror attacks occur with disturbing regularity, and information about al Queda’s whereabouts and activities is hard to come by. When Obama announces an end to the torture of detainees, the CIA despairs: In the minds of the agents in “Zero Dark Thirty,” they’ve lost a valuable tool. However, the agency’s shift in tactics leads to crucial breaks in the case. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the film suggests that the CIA’s intense focus on the detainees actually delayed the capture of bin Laden. Because it’s clear that other methods, such as monitoring the couriers telephone calls, were much more effective than torture.
Eventually the film culminates in a real-time raid on the compound where bin Laden is hiding. Like the rest of the film, the raid is suspenseful and gripping, but it’s also uncomfortable. Maya tells the Navy SEAL team charged with carrying out the attack that she would have preferred to drop a bomb on the compound — a remark that struck me as extremely callous once I saw how many children were living inside the compound. By this point in the film, Maya’s sense of humanity is greatly diminished: bin Laden is her sole focus, and any “collateral damage” that might occur as a result of capturing and killing him doesn’t bother her in the slightest. In a way, she functions as a symbol for the United States, because in depicting the ugliness of the hunt for bin Laden, and the compromising of basic values, such as a long-standing prohibition on torture, Bigelow and Boal are actually arguing something pretty radical: that there has been a moral cost to the war on terror, and that we have lost our bearings as a country. The killing of bin Laden is depicted as a victory, but one that’s ultimately pyrrhic in nature, a momentary milestone in a war that will go on and on and on.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is riveting, but it is not a slam-bang action film of the “Die Hard” variety, and it is not the sort of film that makes you feel like standing up in cheering. The ending of the film, which shows Maya sitting alone on an airplane, tears trickling down her cheeks, is oddly muted, suggesting that whatever catharsis the capture of bin Laden was supposed to bring will likely elude us for a long time.
If there’s a director who believes there’s catharsis in violence — at least of the onscreen variety — it’s Quentin Tarantino.
In his latest, “Django Unchained,” he tells the story of a slave-turned bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx) who partners with a German immigrant, Dr. Schultz, who hates slavery (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife from a plantation in Mississippi. That’s pretty much the gist of “Django Unchained,” a meandering yarn that runs for nearly three hours and features the clever dialogue, bursts of extreme violence and colorful characters that Tarantino is known for. His films are comedies, but with a lot of shooting, blood and guts.
QT’s love of exploitation and B-films is well known, and “Django Unchained” is a wild, sometimes unwieldy mix of genres: spaghetti western, blaxploitation and vengeance thriller. The “Django” controversy stems from a sense that Tarantino is a shallow white guy who shouldn’t use a historical wrong such as slavery as grist for a modern-day exploitation, but I enjoyed this film almost as much as I enjoyed his revisionist World War II history story, “Inglourious Basterds.” He doesn’t shy away from depicting slavery as a toxic, horrible and brutal system, which makes “Django Unchained” a bracing tonic to Hollywood films, such as “Gone with the Wind,” that sentimentalize and whitewash slavery. I especially enjoyed watching Django SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! blow up the plantation at the end of the film, because I’m pretty sure that this was Tarantino’s unsubtle way of blowing Tara to smithereens. By the way, “Gone with the Wind” is one of my least favorite films of all time. I HATE IT.
Tarantino has never cared about political correctness, and one of his main goals seems to be thrilling viewers with violence, providing a jolt of adrenaline that might not be admirable, or appropriate, but cannot be denied. I am a pretty peaceful, non-violent person, but a Tarantino film will have me grinning from ear to ear at gruesome and grotesque scenes of bloodshed and death. Why is this? I have no idea, but I think it’s an interesting question to ask. In any case, I enjoyed watching Jamie Foxx don really cool looking sunglasses (I loved the anachronistic touches in this film) and blow away evil white people, such as plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and one evil black person — Stephen, the scheming house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson (who should have been nominated for an Oscar). Of course, there are also scenes of shocking violence, such as the “mandingo fight” hosted by Candie, that will make the laughs dry up in your throat.
“Django Unchained” has its flaws. The performances are fantastic, but there are a lot of characters, and not all of them are fleshed out. Tarantino is pretty good at developing female characters — he gave Pam Grier the role of a lifetime in “Jackie Brown” — and I felt he could have done more with Kerry Washington, who plays Django’s wife. I also wish Walton Goggins, a terrific character actor who excels in playing mean, deranged people, had been given more to do. I also wish Tarantino had tightened up the final third of the film; “Django” contains two or three endings, and would have been better, I think, had it just stuck to one.
For the most part, the film is exhilarating, but after the first shoot-out at the plantation, when it was clear Django would have to return and kill everyone who had survived, I began to feel a little exhausted. Perhaps that’s the quintessential Quentin Tarantino experience: He gives you too much, but leaves you wanting more.
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