Saturday, January 19, 2013

Movie Reviews-Zero Dark Thirty, The Baytown Outlaws

Zero Dark Thirty
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) is an extremely well crafted film that flirts with a message that is morally despicable and vacuous. It is about the search for and ultimate assassination of Osama Bin Laden (OBL). The driving force behind this is a midlevel CIA analyst, Maya, played with barely restrained fury and icy discipline by Jessica Chastain. Maya is less analyst and more Valkyrie. Maya is likely a composite character. Does the first "other" in an environment need to try harder to fit into the dominant model? Yes. The first black policemen or firemen had to deal strategically with racism in order to lay the groundwork for those coming after them. In the seventies and eighties some professional office clothing for women tried to hide that women aren't men and don't look like men. In ZDT Maya is ice water, that is when she's not cursing at CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) or engaging in other bad behavior usually considered to be men's bailiwick. Perhaps this story element appealed to Bigelow, who is a first of her own. Only Bigelow can say for sure. It certainly seemed that way. 

Better writers and smarter people than I have debated ZDT's stance on torture. Naomi Wolf compared Bigelow to Leni Riefenstahl, which may seem like a low blow, but shows you how seriously people take the issues. Bigelow defended herself by writing that "depiction is not endorsement" and that smart or artistic people should understand that. I don't think that Bigelow consciously set out to make a pro-torture movie. And I don't know and don't really care about her politics or those of the film's primary actors. But she opened herself up to criticism by claiming that the film is "journalistic". ZDT is a film that strongly implies that:
  • Torture works
  • Torture helped us find OBL 
  • Everyone in the relevant government agencies knew about the torture 
  • A woman is heroic to the extent that she engages in morally questionable behavior, just like the guys 
  • Torture is a fitting punishment for some people.
In ZDT no one questions torture's efficacy or morality. In real life, that wasn't the case. Torture did not help us get OBL. There are many US laws, international laws and UN treaties against torture. It is a war crime. There is no exception. It is a shame, a sin, and arguably a crime that President Obama did not prosecute those who tortured, ordered torture or wrote legal memos defending torture. But as Bigelow smartly shows, when Maya is watching a drone attack, is torture worse than killing someone without trial?  Bigelow worked with CIA sources for ZDT, presumably including some people who wanted a different story placed for public consumption. So you must take care watching this film. Despite the director's avowed best intentions it can come across as propaganda. 
When a film that depicts torture is ONLY concerned about the well being of the torturer (one person jokes he's seen too many naked men while another briefly shows her disgust at the stench of human feces) and NOT at concerned with the well being of the brutalized prisoner something has gone wrong. If you think torture is ok or argue that in this particular case we had to do it, I would just ask you where you are willing to draw the line? Were the cops who tortured black suspects in Chicago wrong? And what if, as shown in the Samuel Jackson movie Unthinkable, a prisoner won't break under torture himself but might break if his wife and children were harmed. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing to order or commit rape and worse on innocent women and children for the greater good? Unfortunately ZDT doesn't address or answer any of these questions. ZDT is a procedural detective story with a heroine instead of a hero. 

ZDT opens up with darkness and real life recordings of the 9/11 attack where 3000 Americans were killed. Maya is a novice CIA agent who has just been reassigned to the search for OBL.
In buttoned up attire, Maya arrives at a CIA black site where a CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke), Chastain's co-star from Lawless, is interrogating an Al-Qaeda minor functionary named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Dan is by turns solicitous and savage to Ammar, whom he has already viciously beaten and starved. When Ammar gives an answer Dan believes to be untrue it's waterboarding for him. Dan casually asks Maya to assist, which she does. This proves her bona fides to Dan, who takes her under his wing to teach her the ins and outs of detainee "interrogation" and how to navigate the treacherous political waters of the CIA and Washington D.C. scene. There is no sexual tension between them so Dan is a friendly big brother type for Maya. Maya is a quick learner with a fanatic attention to detail. She swiftly picks up on minute discrepancies between stories. She learns to tell the difference between someone who is lying to protect the Al-Qaeda organization and someone who is lying from fear but has no valuable information. 

Working primarily out of Pakistan, Maya gets to know Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) an older more experienced CIA officer who, after a bit of "who does this smart kid think she is" back and forth, becomes Maya's close friend and big sister/mother substitute. Maya is gung ho to find OBL. After Dan takes reassignment to Washington in part because he doesn't "want to be the last one holding the dog collar",  Maya steps up to lead her own interrogation team, ordering beatings and watching "interrogations" or drone attacks with clinical detachment.
Ammar makes an admission which sets Maya on the trail of Bin Laden's top courier and messenger, Abu Ahmed. And she's like a pit bull. Once she grabs hold she doesn't let go. Her singlemindedness brings her into regular conflict with her direct boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), CIA Pakistan Station Chief. Jessica is killed in the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman. Maya herself survives multiple assassination attempts. After these traumatic events the already intense Maya turns up the heat on herself and everyone else. The hunt for OBL becomes very personal for her. She reviews data and leads in which other people have lost interest. When her peers won't help she appeals, cajoles or finds ways to go around them. Maya's a very persuasive individual who never takes no for an answer. Eventually a detainee makes a mistake which Maya notices.

The story briefly veers into ever so slight ridiculousness as Maya is now more macho than every man she meets. Maya tells the Seal team that they are going to kill Bin Laden for her. When CIA Director Leon Panetta asks who she is, she replies "I'm the muyerfuyer who found Bin Laden". Right. Because people talk to their boss' boss' boss like that all the time. Maya daily harasses her new supervisors to devote what she considers to be proper time and resources to the OBL search. Basically she throws an extended temper tantrum. YMMV on this. I didn't care for it myself. It's not because it's a woman displaying jerkish behavior. I just don't like jerks. Period. I am repelled by real life women who wrongly think that acting like the crudest stereotype of men is the way to attain male respect. It isn't.
ZDT provides a cornucopia of very interesting and doubtless quite misleading information about the various methods and technologies used to locate Abu Ahmed and ultimately OBL. A little treachery, a little money and a lot of legwork evidently went a long way. ZDT is at its best when it shows the long arduous work needed to connect a seemingly innocuous comment from one detainee to a lie from another detainee to a strange behavior pattern from a man who has no legitimate reason to act strangely. Now do all that in a foreign country where your skin tone immediately marks you as an outsider. Obviously Seal Team Six does actually locate OBL and send him to hell.

I can't overemphasize how "real" this movie feels and how much of a skilled craftswoman Bigelow is. I loved her camera work. Everything, from the intelligence status meetings in Washington or Islamabad to the attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan to the hesitant or aborted friendships among various CIA officers and staff, is so true to life it's like you were there. At lunch women giggle over the cute male co-workers and in the next breath discuss torture or executions. Bigelow has a great eye for detail. Although you already know the outcome Bigelow still makes a suspenseful movie. Chastain gives this film her best performance I've seen so far. Maya has no backstory, no love interest, and evidently no other goal in life than to locate and eliminate OBL.

My basic issue with ZDT is that I simply don't think it's very heroic to hurt living things who have no ability to respond. It's like shooting wolves from helicopters or beating up a six year old. That's what torture is. It's easy to front as a tough guy or gal when a man is tied up and you have two or three men the size of J.J. Watt helping you inflict pain on him. The Seal Team Six raid on Bin Laden's compound was more interesting to me because as soldiers, they accept the risk that people will be shooting back. I think that's more heroic. Watching someone be sexually humiliated or forced to crawl through his own excrement is not heroic. It did happen, though perhaps not quite as Bigelow shows it here. Torture hindered the search for Bin Laden. Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin claimed the film was "grossly inaccurate". Bigelow's film makes you think torture was essential. Despite her protestations, it takes a side. And I'm not on that side.

Although the violence is explicit, it's not in the same universe as an average slasher/horror movie. It's not all that different than what's shown on Scandal, 24 or Homeland. This film has far too many top character actors to list. I got a kick out of seeing Stephen Dillane (Stannis from HBO's Game of Thrones) play a world weary National Security Advisor. I was hoping he would ominously intone "Osama will bend the knee or I will destroy him. The cold winds are rising." but no such luck. This film is long but never drags.
Other actors of note include Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt, and Scott Adkins.


The Baytown Outlaws
directed by Barry Battles
This film is like a less deliberately offensive The Devil's Rejects, though it certainly tries to be as offensive. I'm not sure the director's heart was as in it. Like that movie it takes characters who are dangerous, despicable and deadly and makes them the heroes by the simple trick of spending time with them, setting them against worse people and most manipulatively, giving them a child to protect. Still it was fun to watch if you're in the mood and I was so it's okay by me. You may feel differently. Some bigger name actors are slumming here and they appear to be having a good time. This film works if you don't think about it too much. Certainly the actors don't.

This film opens up with the Alabama based Oodie Brothers paying a visit to a house inhabited by drug dealers. There are three Oodie Brothers, Brick (Clayne Crawford) the oldest and leader who usually wears a Confederate Flag T-shirt, Lincoln (Daniel Cudmore), the middle brother and biggest/strongest who can't speak because of injuries suffered during wrestling, and McQueen (Travis Fimmel), the youngest and most hotheaded. The Oodie Brothers kill everyone in the house during the opening sequence. Unfortunately as McQueen discovers from a telephone bill, it was actually the wrong address. In flashback it's shown that all three of the brothers are dangerous killers with long records of mayhem and other crime.

A witness to their crime, Celeste (Eva Longoria), follows them back to their home and makes Brick an offer. Kidnap her godson from her estranged husband Carlos (Billy Bob Thornton) and she'll pay them handsomely. Intrigued as much by the sight of Celeste in cut-off jeans and a clingy top as by the $5000 down payment, Brick agrees, despite McQueen's angry insistence that intervening in custody disputes isn't really an Oodie business service.
Meanwhile a Northern ATF agent (Paul Wesley) tries to talk to the local sheriff Milliard (Andre Braugher) about the strangely low rate of crime in the area, the fact that so many criminals either disappear or turn up dead and oddities he's noticed about the Oodie Brothers. Sheriff Milliard pretends not to know what the agent is talking about and gives him the runaround with that peculiarly Southern mixture of politesse and hostility. It is jarring and funny to see a black man playing this archetype of Southern White Maleness. Braugher pulls it off perfectly, even throwing in a post-ironic dig about the Civil War.
As it turns out Milliard and Celeste were both less than truthful with the people questioning them. Celeste was married to Carlos but the boy she seeks to rescue, Rob (Thomas Sangster), is not her son or Carlos' son. Carlos murdered Rob's real parents. There's something else about Rob which explains why Carlos wants him. And Carlos isn't just some schmuck. He's an absentmindedly malicious drug dealer and gangster. When two hapless low level mooks make the mistake of letting Carlos know they'd do things differently, Carlos (paraphrasing) says "Let me stop you right there. See I see my empire as the Wal-mart of bottom-dollar retail crime. What you two yahoos are talking about is a word I don't like to use. Partner. I don't need partners. I need baggers. I need clerks. See partners lead to another bad word. Mutiny". It doesn't end well for the duo. Nevertheless the Oodies crash into Carlos' home and kidnap Rob, who isn't what they expected. They aren't able to kill Carlos though. He sets a number of different cartoonish hoodlums after them including female dominatrix/prostitute bikers, black gothic road warriors, and Native American thugs.

And Milliard knows the Oodies all too well as he is the closest thing to a Daddy they have. There's very little that they do that he doesn't direct or know about. And the movie lurches on its merry way. Mayhem, bloodshed and aforementioned tenderness for a helpless child ensue. Michael Rapaport has a cameo as a cowardly but horny bartender.
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