Movies postsSaturday February 02, 2013
The Best Movie Scene of the Year
Daniel Day-Lewis at 13
Maybe it was when I was reviewing “Lincoln,” and looking up Daniel Day-Lewis' CV on IMDb. Maybe it was earlier. For “Nine”? “There Will Be Blood”?
Daniel Day-Lewis was one of my first “this is the guy that was in that?” actors. You couldn't believe the transformation. I'd seen him in “My Beautiful Launderette” at a small campus theater during my college days, and I was watching “A Room with a View” in an MTV (private movie screening room) in Taipei, Taiwan. I knew the gay tough in “Launderette” was in the film, and good, supposedly, but for the first part of the film I couldn't place him. He's not the blonde-haired dude screaming about beauty, is he? Didn't seem right. Then Cecil showed up and I went, “Oh, my, god.” That's the same dude? Holy crap. All the charm he had displayed in the former had vanished. Then we get that moment at the end when he ties his shoes. He's the wrong man in the story and in his every gesture we feel the weight of being the wrong man in the story. Most wrong men just leave. He tweaks our hearts first.
I always thought “Launderette” was one of his first films, but his credits pre-“Launderette” seem to keep growing, and recently I noticed an even earlier one: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from 1971. Really? Wouldn't he have been ... 13?
Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere has the clip. Here's a screenshot.
Wells calls him unrecognizable but you can see something of the man he'll become. He also reminds me of my older brother, who, at this time, half a world away, while acting at the Children's Theater in Minneapolis, landed a small part in “The Crucible” at the Guthrie Theater as one of the Proctor children. Blair Brown played his mother. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, would eventually play John Proctor in a movie version in 1996. Crossed paths.
Michael Moore's Defense of 'Zero Dark Thirty': Annotated
Today, Aaron Reid asked me if I found anything worthwhile in Michael Moore's defense of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Yep. In fact, Michael Moore defends the film better than anyone I've read—particularly director Kathryn Bigelow. He's particularly good at defending the film from the left. Nice irony. But overall his defense involves things that aren't in the movie. I wish they were.
The words below are Moore's. The annotations are mine.
There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through Zero Dark Thirty where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who's been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that — get this! — we can't torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can't we torture any more??? Interesting take. Except those CIA officials? Like Maya (Jessica Chastain)? We're behind them. We agree with them. Plus this is a cartoon version of what happens.
The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he's saying, in plain English, that America's torturing days are over, done, finished. There's an “aw, shit” look on their faces and then some new boss comes into the meeting room, slams his fist on the table and says, essentially, you've had eight years to find bin Laden — and all you've got to show for it are a bunch of photos of naked Arab men peeing on themselves and wearing dog collars and black hoods. Well, he shouts, those days are over! There's no secret group up on the top floor looking for bin Laden, you're it, and goddammit do your job and find him. Is this how the scene played out in Michael Moore's mind? Because it's not how it played in the theater where I saw it. People laughed when Obama said “We don't torture.” He was the naive guy in the room. We were in a room with serious people, and this guy came along running for office and saying these pretty things, and they listened to him for a second and then went back to business. They went back to serious work. That's how I read the scene. And I never made the connection between the new guy (played by Mark Strong) and the Obama administration. Maybe it's there, way back somewhere, back back back, but it's not mentioned. Not even subtly.
He is there to put the fear of God in them, probably because his boss, the new president, has (as we can presume) on his first day in office, ordered that bin Laden be found and killed. Key word is “probably.”
Unlike his frat boy predecessor who had little interest in finding bin Laden (even to the point of joking that “I really just don't spend that much time on him”), this new president was not an imbecile and all about business. Go find bin Laden — and don't use torture. Torture is morally wrong. Torture is the coward's way. C'mon — we're smart, we're the USA, and you're telling me we can't find a six-and-a-half-foot tall Saudi who's got a $25 million bounty on his head? Use your brains (like I do) and, goddammit, get to work! This is kinda how things played out in the real world. But it's not anywhere in the movie.
And then, as the movie shows, the CIA abruptly shifts from torture porn to — are you sitting down? — detective work. Actually, at this point, we get a long set piece on a disastrous attempt to turn one of the members of al Qaeda. Which was totally unnecessary. And insulting to women. Remember Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) baking a cake for the dude? And being all nervous like on a first date? And then getting blown up. Apparently this character is loosely based on Jennifer Matthews. Those who knew her, such as Nada Bakos, aren't pleased.
Like cops do to find killers. Bin Laden was a killer — a mass killer — not a general of an army of soldiers, or the head of a country call Terrorstan. He was a crazed religious fanatic, a multi-millionaire, and a punk who was part of the anti-Soviet mujahideen whom we trained, armed and funded in Afghanistan back in the '80s. But he was a godsend and a very useful tool to the Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfields of the world. They could hold him up to a frightened American public and scare the bejesus out of everyone — and everyone (well, most everyone) would then get behind the effort to declare war on, um ... well ... Who exactly do we declare war against? Oh, right — terrorism! The War on Terrorism! So skilled were the men from Halliburton, et al. that they convinced the Congress and the public to go to war against a noun. Terrorism. People fell for it, and these rich men and their friends made billions of dollars from “contracting” and armaments and a Burger King on every Iraqi base. Billions more were made creating a massive internal spying apparatus called “Homeland Security.” Business was very, very good, and as long as the bogeyman (Osama) was alive, the citizenry would not complain one bit. Moore's cartoon take on 2001-08. Again, I don't disagree. Again, not in the movie.
I think you know what happens next. In the final third of Zero Dark Thirty, the agents switch from torture to detective work — and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture — no bin Laden. Two years of detective work — boom! Bin Laden!
And that really should be the main takeaway from Zero Dark Thirty: That good detective work can bring fruitful results — and that torture is wrong. Except the shift isn't as abrupt as you make it. And the crucial bit of evidence, the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed, is attained through torture in the first third of the film.
Much of the discussion and controversy around the film has centered on the belief that the movie shows, or is trying to say, that torture works. They torture a guy for years and finally, while having a friendly lunch with him one day, they ask him if he would tell them the name of bin Laden's courier. Either that, or go back and be tortured some more. He says he doesn't know the guy but he knows his fake name and he gives them that name. The name turns out to be correct. Torture works!
But then we learn a piece of news: The CIA has had the name of this guy all along! For ten years! And how did they get this name ten years ago? From “a tip.” A random tip! No torture involved. But, as was the rule during those years of incompetency and no desire to find bin Laden, the tip was filed away somewhere in some room — and not discovered until 2010. So, instead of torturing hundreds for eight years to find this important morsel of intelligence, they could have found it in their own CIA file cabinet in about eight minutes. Yeah, torture works. OK, this is Mr. Moore's VAST misreading of the movie. This bit of information was only brought to Maya's attention because she was already searching for Abu Ahmed. If she hadn't already been searching for Abu Ahmed, a name gained through two years of torture, the name in the file would've remained in the file. It never would have been brought to her attention.
And—hold on a second—wouldn't THIS have been the perfect moment to mention some of the negatives in the enhanced interrogation program? Maya mentions all the false intel buzzing around in the early years and implies it came from supposed friendlies, such as Pakistan, who weren't really that friendly. I'm sure we got a lot of false intel from interrogating the wrong people, too. Torture someone and they'll tell you what you want to hear. Even if what you want to hear is false.
In the movie, after they have the name of the courier, they then believe if they find him, they find bin Laden. So how do they find him? They bribe a Kuwaiti informant with a new car. That's right, they find the number of the courier's family by giving the guy a Lamborghini. And what do they do when they find the courier's mother? Do they kidnap and torture her to find out where her son is? Nope, they just listen in on his weekly call home to Mom, and through that, they trace him to Pakistan and then hire a bunch of undercover Pakistani Joe Fridays to follow this guy's every move — which, then, leads them to the infamous compound in Abbottabad where the Saudi punk has holed up. Very true. Except, again, it begins, it all begins, with the evidence attained through torture.
Nice police work, boys! Agreed. This is the best part of the movie. This detective work.
Oh — and girl. 'Zero Dark Thirty — a movie made by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), produced by a woman (Megan Ellison), distributed by a woman (Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures), and starring a woman (Jessica Chastain) is really about how an agency of mostly men are dismissive of a woman who is on the right path to finding bin Laden. Yes, guys, this is a movie about how we don't listen to women, how hard it is for them to have their voice heard even in these enlightened times. You could say this is a 21st century chick flick — and it would do you well to see it. Now you're boring me. Particularly since you ignore Jessica.
But back to the controversy and the torture. I guess where I part with most of my friends who are upset at this film is that they are allowing the wrong debate to take place. You should NEVER engage in a debate where the other side defines the terms of the debate — namely, in this case, to debate “whether torture works.” You should refuse to participate in that discussion because the real question should be, simply, “is torture wrong?” And, after watching the brutal behavior of CIA agents for the first 45 minutes of the film, I can't believe anyone of conscience would conclude anything other than that this is morally NOT right. You will be repulsed by these torture scenes because, make no mistake about it, this has been done in your name and mine and with our tax dollars. We funded this. “I can't believe anyone of conscience would...” And that's where you stumble. All the time. In your belief that no one else could think other than the way you do.
If you allow the question to be “did torture work?” then you'll lose because yes, if you torture someone who actually has the information, they will eventually give it to you. The problem is, the other 99 who don't know anything will also tell you anything to get you to stop torturing - but their information is wrong. How do you know which one of the 100 is the man with the goods? You don't. You know this, I know this, I've been making this argument all along. So why didn't the movie SHOW this? Because Bigelow and Boal wanted to be subtle? Because they didn't want to ruffle feathers? Because they drank some bitter CIA Kool-Aid? With all due respect, Mr. Moore, the question you need to answer is: WHY ISN'T THIS IN THE FUCKING MOVIE?
But let's grant the other side that maybe, occasionally, torture “works.” Here's what else will work: castrating pedophiles. Why don't we do that? Probably because we think it's morally wrong. The death penalty sure works. Put a murderer in a gas chamber and I can guarantee you he'll never murder again. But is it right? Do we accomplish the ends we seek by becoming the murderers ourselves? That should be our only question. Should. Isn't.
After I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a friend asked me, “During the torture scenes, who did you feel empathy for the most — the American torturer or the Arab suspect?” That was easy to answer. “Oh, God, the poor guy being waterboarded. The torturer was a sadist.” Dan? A sadist? I didn't get that at all. He was someone who got worn down by official policy. His scene with the monkeys in the cage? And the ice cream? That's our sadist? The guy who's doing what needs to be done to keep us safe? The guy who bribes the dude with the Lamborghini? Who gets THAT ball rolling? Does the movie see him as a sadist? Does Maya?
“Yes, that's the answer everyone gives me afterward. The movie actually makes you care for the tortured guys who may have, in fact, been part of 9/11. Like rooting for the Germans on the submarine to make it back to port in Das Boot, that's the sign of some great filmmaking when the writer and director are able to get you to empathize with the person you've been told everywhere else to hate.” Right movie, wrong analogy. We root for the Germans in DAS BOOT because they're the main characters. They're US. It's very difficult to create main characters in movies with whom the audience doesn't empathize. The lights go down, we disappear, we become them. That's the trade-off of movies. And in “Zero Dark Thirty”? The main character is Maya. We're on her side. Whatever she does, even torturing people, we're behind her. She's just trying to keep us safe. She's getting her hands dirty to keep us safe.
Zero Dark Thirty is a disturbing, fantastically-made movie. It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity — and who asked that the people over at Langley, like him, use their brains. Or you'll chuckle at his small, naive moment onscreen--as many have done.
And that's what worked.
P.S. One final thought. I've heard fellow lefties say that even if the filmmakers didn't intend to endorse torture (Bigelow called torture “reprehensible” on Colbert the other night), the average person watching the movie is going to take it the wrong way. I believe it is the responsibility of the filmmaker attempting to communicate something that they do so clearly and skillfully (and you can decide for yourself if Bigelow and Boal did so. For me, they did.). But I never blame the artist for failing to dumb down their work so that the lesser minds among us “get it.” Should Springsteen not have named his album Born in the USA because some took it to be as a salute to patriotism (Reagan wanted to use it in his 1984 reelection campaign but Bruce said no)? Dumbing down is one thing. But you have to be aware of what movies are, what movies do, the trade-off in the dark. I'm not asking for a dumbing down. I'm asking for 1/10 of what Moore sees in the movie to actually BE in the movie.
Michael Moore defends “Zero Dark Thirty” by imagining a less murky movie than “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The Annotated Kathryn Bigelow Editorial
The following article by Kathryn Bigelow appeared in The Los Angeles Times the other day. The annotations, as always, are mine...
For a long time, measuring more years than I care to count, I thought the movie that became “Zero Dark Thirty” would never happen. The goal, to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history, was exciting and worthy enough, or so it seemed. But there were too many obstacles, too many secrets, and politicians standing in the way of an easy path. Damn politicians. Aren't they always just standing in the way? They should be tortured.
Somehow, though, thanks to the great persistence of my filmmaking team and an enormous dose of luck, we got the movie made and found studio partners with the courage to release it. Wow, what a great story! Wait, it's not over?
Then came the controversy. Oh right.
Now that “Zero Dark Thirty” has appeared in cinemas nationwide, many people have asked me if I was surprised by the brouhaha that surrounded the film while it was still in limited release, when many thoughtful people were characterizing it in wildly contradictory ways. The Times asked me to elaborate on recent statements I've made in response to these issues. I'm not sure I have anything new to add, but I can try to be concise and clear. Isn't “something new to add” the point of an article like this?
First of all: I support every American's 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind. Whoa, back off there, hippy...
But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen. Yeah! Those stupid people who made torture such a necessary and effective part of our hunt for Osama bin Laden! Who, sure, had to torture people after 9/11, but at least they always had the right people. Who risked their souls to get the information we needed to defeat our enemies.
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time. Does this mean Philip Roth doesn't endorse masturbation? I know, I'm dating myself. Which—alley oop—is the exact pathway to masturbation.
This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation. It also chills any American artist's ability to glamorize dark deeds: who makes dark deeds the thing we have to do in order to achieve the goal of the story, which, in this case, is killing America's greatest enemy. BTW: Obfuscation. Good word.
Indeed, I'm very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. “Rambo,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “300,” “Battleship,” “Red Dawn,” “Red Dawn,” “Pearl Harbor,” etc.
Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat. “Tonight we dine in hell!”
On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices. Much better to make it the thing we have to do in order to achieve the goal of the story, which, in this case, is killing America's greatest enemy.
Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. Here we go! This is what I want. So how did the experts with whom you spoke disagree? How come you're not telling us this? How come you're withholding information from us? When you withhold information from us, Kathryn, we hurt you. When you lie to us, Kathryn, we hurt you...
As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. OK...
Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. OK...
That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. Was it a key? Was it the first key? As it is in “Zero Dark Thirty”? Don't make us get the rag, Kathryn.
It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences. If war isn't pretty, what's Jessica Chastain doing there?
In that vein, we should never discount and never forget the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks. We should never forget the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation's safety and security. Sounds like someone's running for office.
Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. ... Now get the rag.
“Zero Dark Thirty”'s screenwriter Mark Boal and its director Kathryn Bigelow. The former apparently didn't help the latter with the above.
That Tarantino Interview: 'This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.'
Before I watched it, I assumed the interviewer in the clip below just asked Quentin Tarantino the wrong question. Instead of “Does movie violence lead to real violence?” he should have asked, “How has movie violence affected you?” I.e., Why do you make these kinds of movies? What is it about spaghetti westerns that appeal and why? I assumed the interviewer was just ham-handed.
Instead, the interviewer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, is the furthest thing from ham-handed. He does in fact ask the question I thought he should ask, and is polite and articulate in doing so. It's Tarantino who's ham-handed. He comes off as a major asshole here. He comes off as pompous and privileged in promoting “Django Unchained.”
Here it is:
In the beginning he says the pompous:
I'm responsible for people talking about slavery in a way they have not in 30 years. ... There is a dialogue going on about slavery that has not been happening at all. It's a subject people are afraid to talk about. And now because of this movie, people aren't afraid to talk about it.
I'm thinking: What dialogue are people having about slavery? They're having a dialogue about you; and it's the same fucking dialogue. Tarantino wants to be a black man. No, Tarantino hates black men. The N-word: Why say it so often? Why this gratuitous violence against black men? In other words, the criticism leveled at him during “Inglourious Basterds”—that QT turned the victims (Jews) into victimizers, and victimizers (Nazis) into victims, because he never shows the Jews as victims—here becomes its opposite. Keli Goff on HuffPo is the worst in this regard. She also complains about the lack of a strong female character. This after 15 years of Jackie Brown, the Bride, Shoshanna Dreyfus. The only ones who come off worse than QT in discussing his films is everyone else.
Then Guru-Murthy asks Tarantino about the relationship between movie violence and real violence and QT joins the crowd:
I refuse your question. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.
No, you're a privileged asshole. Because the next thing you say, rather snidely, is this:
Because I’m here to sell my movie. This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.
So the dialogue about slavery the U.S. is having because of you? That was PR? Of course it was.
I could go on. Almost everything people think is wrong about Tarantino's movies (the N-word, racism) isn't. But almost everything people think is right about Tarantino's movies (how cool they are) isn't. In the end, he's not worth this much time. We should stop dancing to his tune.
“This is a commercial for the movie—make no mistake.”