Sunday, December 1, 2013

O Dark XXX

Part One:  The basics
A review of "Zero Dark Thirty"

My wife and I gave this movie a miss in the cinemas, owing to reviews that mentioned scenes of torture.  During such a scene in one of the later James Bonds, I popped out of my seat and strolled off to the men’s-room and looked at movie posters before venturing back in to the auditorium.   And I figured:  Why spend money on this. 
Also there was the allegation that the film accorded too great a role to the use of “enhanced interrogation” in eliciting the data-points that led eventually to the UBL snatch.   Actually, simply based on chronology of the affair, that allegation sounds plausible, since whatever the black site guys knew was pretty stale by the time those interrogations ceased;  even staler when the snatch went down.  However, artistic license and all that, that wasn’t a deal-breaker.  But being trapped in a torture-chamber with Surroundsound and a big screen, that was.

But last week, a couple of operational guys of my acquaintance  -- not cowboys, but the analytical, thoughtful type (met ‘em in a bar) -- recommended the movie, so I borrowed the DVD.
A couple of thoughts.

First, the torture scenes are much more than an interlude:  they dominate the first twenty minutes or so of the movie.   Just as well I didn’t try to see it in a theatre -- I would have walked out.  At home, at least, you can mute the sound and, if need be, fast-forward.
Further,  instead of the Evil Overlord or whoever  abusing Bond, in this movie  the torturers are supposed to be the good guys, and are played by very sympathetic actors.
Further still, well after that part is over (punctuated by a screenshot of President Obama on TV, saying “America does not torture”), the issue comes up again, not with visuo-dramatic necessity, but more like one of those agenda-grinding asides on “24”.   Challenged by an indifferent superior to prove that the unseen man in the Abbottabad safehouse is not Ben Laden, the analyst complains:

You know we lost the ability to prove that  when we lost the detainee program.  Who the hell am I supposed to ask?  Some guy in Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?  He’ll just tell his lawyer to warn Ben Laden.”

(Jack Bauer could not have put it better.)  Apart from its overestimation of the value of torturing prisoners who have been out of the game for years by then (not to mention the silliness of the idea that the prisoners would not realize that we were interested in finding UBL unless we asked them, and that some random detainee’s lawyer would have comms access to AQSL),  this passage rings amiss, by the restriction of its horizon to HUMINT, to the exclusion of other “INT”s that one could mention.  

For a critique of the torture question, try this:

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A word on the title, “Zero Dark Thirty”.   The phrase is wonderfully evocative, even if you go in not understanding it (which few outside the military will).  [For a similar situation, cf. the echoey movie-title “Memento”, which few viewers will realize has here regained its Latin force of a future-imperative verb.]  Only… unless I blinked, you leave the theatre likewise not understanding it.

That the director (or producer?) would name a big-budget picture with a phrase so arcane, and not explain it within the movie, suggests that she was truly aiming it at the troops.   (After all, she also directed “The Hurt Locker”, which hewed more to the warfighter’s experience than to grand loose-limbed narratives of Hollywood.)   But here is a thumbs-down from an actual veteran of armed conflict, to whom the title was a turnoff:

It's a well-known saying in the Army, like "huah." And like huah, outside of basic training it's usually only used by overweight soldiers on profile who have way more bravado than balls. 
To me, the title embodies the stereotypical military bravado that started in Hollywood movies and was later adopted by soldiers who had seen way too many Hollywood movies.

I somehow got the impression from the Internet that the phrase meant (in more formal jargon), 0030 Zulu, or something like that.  Not so.  From another Army vet, Umm-Tha`lab:

The way we used it, 'zero dark thirty' was an amorphous thing. It was whatever ungodly time of the morning your first sergeant thought you ought to show up for his special treat of the day--and it usually equalled 0430.


The average viewer, attuned to the current American default narrative of female grievance, will assume that the reason she gets pushback from the higher-ups is that she’s a woman.   What people don’t realize is that, in the IC and in the federal government generally, people whose “office” is reduced to a cube in a pod (as hers is) do not generally get by-name credit for things at higher levels.  It is the job of your manager to take credit for what you do;  and the job of his manager to take credit for what he does;  and so on up the chain.  The very fact that she was included in an intimate face-to-face with the Director of CIA (he later seeks her out in the cafeteria  and has a one-on-one at lunch)  is already more than most folks expect;  her aggressive speaking up for herself ( Director: “And who might you be?”  I’m the motherfucker who found Ben Laden.”), in evident rebuke to her immediate superiors, would in itself be enough to sink almost any career.   And indeed, the actual person upon whom this character is based, reportedly both occasioned and received much friction with her colleagues.
Believe me, I sympathize with her;  actually been in a similar situation myself.  But, just sayin’.


The business of her repeatedly scrawling in red lipstick on the window of her boss’s office, the number of days since the Abbotabad compound was found, with “nothing done”, was dramatically very effective (the most powerful scenes in movies  involve no spoken words).   It also recalled the litany on the nightly news during the Iran hostage crisis  (“Day 128 …”), which basically sank President Carter’s chances for re-election.  (Unfairly;  see our remarks on Argo.)


The advanced helicopters used in the raid, never before used operationally, had been specifically designed to minimize their imprint to sensors.  But in the movie, the rotors make one heck of a racket.  More cinematic that way, of course, especially as the shots cut between the silent room of monitors, and the actual aircraft.  But one wonders what the truth is.

Movies, and even television, have in recent years  gone to great lengths to make their foreign-language material authentic, even in exotic languages that few in the audience will appreciate.  This film does not.  Actors speaking in an accent to make you think they are Arabic, still grossly mispronounce many Arabic names.

~   ~   ~

Part Two:  A deeper look
“The Passion of Saint Maya”

Critics have quibbled over how this production does or does not  faithfully reflect “the facts”, and how it departs from the handling that they themselves might have imparted to the material, had it been they (contrary to fact) rather than she (as it happens) who went to the trouble of making the thing.
The broad-brush answer to such carping is:  “It’s Just a Movie”.   But -- is it?

Though it is made with the skill of a standard international thriller (the sky-shots of the Afghan camps are wonderful), at several points  its mission seems not principally to entertain.  Though with nothing of the feel of a documentary, the film yet feels obliged to touch certain bases in a way that is documentary rather than narrative.  As, the brief incident in which we behold a man alone in an office, making obeissances on an Islamic prayer-rug, as someone walks in.  The man is never explicitly identified, and interacts hardly at all with the other characters.  What is he doing there?   The jarring sight of the Muslim prayer-ceremony in the apparent middle of CIA headquarters, will baffle many viewers:  What is the point of this?  Surely this is the launching of some subplot?  But no -- the audience is left hanging. -- Aficionados will realize that this character is a reference to the head of CIA CT at the time (whose name has not been made public), and who is indeed a convert to Islam.  Further, he is a notoriously abrasive character;  we don’t get to witness this, but his pocked face alludes to it, for those who get the reference.  --  Likewise the movie’s opening:  no visuals, a murmur of indistinct voices, baffling to anyone who might be coming to this fresh, but which we who lived through it  recognize as the voices of the victims-to-be in the Twin Towers.
The departure from normal dramatic narrative conventions  goes deeper.  As with Gibson’s “The Passion”,  “Zero Dark Thirty” is less a movie in the conventional sense, than a ritual re-enactment, like a medieval Mystery Play.
(See our review of Mel Gibson’s movie, along exactly these lines, along with that of another account of the via dolorosa, “March of the Penguins”.)
[Blogger’s note to self:  All right!   We have managed to discover a parallel between a CT movie, and our lieblings-lubie, penguins.  Well played, Dr J!  Take the rest of the day off.]

[To be continued, when we have finished celebrating.]

.      . . .       . . .

[To resume]

Though formally a thriller, there is little actual suspense, since we know how each segment is going to turn out, if we have been paying attention to the newspapers.   (Here reality itself is the spoiler.)

This sort of intertextuality, rather than robbing the exercise of interest, actually lends weight and moment to the segment leading up to the sneak attack at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.  No time need be wasted on exposition (and what little there is, will again be perplexing to the uninitiated -- an over-the-shoulder reference to “the Jords”).  We know what is coming, Fate cannot be swayed;  Fate takes its own solemn time arriving, as we watch, soundlessly, the distant dust of what must be the fateful vehicle, arriving from over the Afghan wastes.   For someone who did not know the backstory, this sequence would be somewhat unsatisfying;  a director who was making up a drama out of whole cloth  would not have shot things this way.   The rhythm here is that of tragedy, in the classical sense;  the unfolding, like that of the old ballads -- fragmentary on the surface, its upcroppings united beneath the sea.

Again like “The Passion”, and like the whole Christian narrative from the beginning to the end of Time,  the telling is centered on one figure.  It is not that there are no striking supporting characters, but that is about all they really do:  support.  They do not have interesting interactions among themselves, independently of her obsession.

Two apparent exceptions to this insight  dissolve upon analysis.
            (1)  The movie opens with a charismatic male interrogator at a black site, hogging the screen, accompanied by no more than a couple of black-clad minions, suited-up in a sort of burka;  you cannot tell anything about them, and are not curious to know.  At this point, the movie looks as though it might be about him;  or at the very least (since you have heard about the female director, and the female lead) that he will be the nemesis / bonding-buddy / love-interest of la jeune première, when it shall please her  eventually to make her entrance.
But no:  She makes her entrance as she makes her exit;  for as they leave the torture-chamber, with its sickly light, and come out into the broad day,  one of the chrysalis-figures  suddenly unzips, and sheds its skin -- pupates before our eyes:  And there stands the rarest, most silk-skinned, Sèvres-cheekboned redhead  we have ever seen.

Look deep into my ... eyes ...

[To be continued, when we all shall have caught our breath...]


            (2)  At one point, in the empty light-lit corridors outside the seat of power, it briefly seems as though we might get some lateral action of interest, as one CIA executive bids his higher-ranking colleague  to stay a bit;  gripping his sleeve (as it were) to ask:  Dost thou not believe on this new gospel? 
The superior replies with an allusion to that false prophet who went before:  “Remember, I was in the room when your former boss pitched WMD’s to the President.  We have to be sure.”
But the supplicant will not be thus turned aside.  Yea, granted there be obscurity in the signs and portents, but what if [She] is right?  And can you afford to be wrong?  -- The latter is a version of Pascal’s Wager.
So, it isn’t really interpersonal;  the two figures are playing their ritual role in the frieze that runs around the temple.   To those of us who get the references without even thinking about it, the scene is satisfying, economical, well-played, and right.  Whereas those in the audience, whether from youth or inattention, have not previously studied the underlying evangelium, and who miss the allusion to George Tenet’s “slam dunk” moment, forever etched in memory, will be nonplussed, standing about like shepherds tending their flocks by night, aware of  signs in the sky  but knowing not what these do mean.

The movie ends magnificently.  For now the gospel tale is told;  “It is finished”.   All the earth rolls away like a carpet, as Maya steps into the space-ship transport-aircraft that is to take her bodily up to the upper regions.  The attendant (and we only see one: ecce angelus;  there is no visible crew) quips “You must be someone pretty important;  this whole plane is just for you.  (This echoes the revelation of the gate-keeper at the end of “Vor dem Gesetz”:  »Hier konnte niemand sonst Einlaß erhalten, denn dieser Eingang war nur für dich bestimmt.«)
And then he utters a casual question, seemingly a throwaway line but it turns out to be the last line of the film, and pregnant with a deeper sense:

“Where do you want to go?”

Where indeed?  Quo vadis?

Romam vado    iterum crucifigi

Alone now, quite alone.  (“Eloi, eloi…”)  And from her liquid eye, down her perfect cheek, there rolls:  a tear;  then two …


[Update]  Bonus ludic link (courtesy of Snarla):

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