Thursday, January 17, 2013

Law & Order: CIA

Zero Dark Thirty is actually three different movies.  The first, titled “See What You Made Us Do To You?” is concerned with gaining information through, shall we say, enhanced interrogation techniques.  The second movie is "Where's Osama?" in which Jessica Chastain’s Maya, who is blessed and/or cursed with the cleanest hair you will ever see in a desert country, plays the lone wolf intel jockey who has to convince everyone from her co-workers to her superiors that her interpretation of the facts is the correct one.  And the third movie is “Call of Duty: Pakistan,” where a bunch of hard-ass no-nonsense gun jockeys don their night goggles for a first-person shooter black op.  As evidence of this filmic schizophrenia, I point to the fact that there are currently two completely different trailers for ZD30, one which centers almost completely on Maya and one which is all Seal Team Six.  As for the third trailer, the one just showing the torture scenes, I think it’s currently only playing in three malls outside Langley, Virginia.

If you looked at this woman’s hair in night vision, 
it would sear your retinas.

What’s also interesting about this movie is all the movies that it isn’t.  Starting with the obvious--it isn’t a documentary.  But it’s a movie that wants it both ways, a movie that will play the demands of storytelling against the veracity of non-fiction, and vice versa, so that every attack you make on one area gets defended by pointing to the other.  This is more than disingenuous on the part of the filmmakers, since a movie is always and only what you see on the screen--not the book it was based on, not the historical events it was based on--and can only be judged on its own terms. 

And what are those terms?  Whether intentional or not, the film says that torture or the threat of torture gets quantifiable intelligence results. It says that the upper echelon of the intelligence community demands swift and decisive action even as it’s crippled by politics.  It says that politicians get in the way of everything, and that it’s not just us against them--it’s us against us.  It says that a determined, single-minded field agent is an outsider and a nuisance who can actually make things happen in this particular world as long as she’s wiling to make that single-minded purpose her entire life.  It also says that one well-placed use of the word “motherfucker” is a hundred times more powerful than all the times it’s anachronistically repeated throughout Django Unchained

And as I said, it’s also a lot of non-existent movies.  For instance, all the tradecraft makes you think this is going to spin out like a John le Carré thriller, but instead of a quiet patient British civil servant, we have a loud impatient monomaniac who is never wrong, which (given this character’s current incarnation in Homeland) is fast becoming a cliché. Our heroine also butts heads with the only other woman in her working group when she gets to her station, and in that initial scene there's a spark of antagonism between the two of them that makes you think, okay, I know where this is going--they’re going to be in each other’s faces from now on.  Only it doesn't happen; and not only doesn’t it happen, they become friends. All of which happens offscreen, because their relationship isn’t the focus of the movie.  We’re given Fact A, and then Fact B, and it’s up to us to either wonder how that happened, or draw a line between them so that they make sense.  In other words, we have to treat the information the movie gives us in the same way that Maya treats the information she gets: by making a story out of it. 

This happens all over the place.  There’s a moment in the beginning of the movie where Maya asks Dan, the chief interrogator, if a suspect they’re questioning is ever going to be freed, because she wants to go in talk to him without a mask.  When Dan says no, he’ll never get out, in Maya goes.  Now I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of tell I’m used to filing away for future reference, as in: “They’re setting up somebody who can’t escape and identify her; wanna bet he escapes at some point and all hell breaks loose?”  Never happens.  We see Maya’s initial reaction to torture, and we think, okay, the fact that she has to deal with this is going to be a big thing, right?  Wrong.  We see Maya threatening her superiors, and we think, okay, this is heading to a showdown, but it doesn't go there.  We see her sit down with the head of the CIA and think, okay, this is obviously where we’ve been heading, and nope, not where we’ve been heading at all.  Because where we’re heading is a woman standing over a dead body, and that ending has been not just foreshadowed, but demanded, by the beginning of this movie, which is a dark-screen audio montage of emergency and personal calls from 9/11 World Trade Center victims. 

The identification of dead bodies.  Based on that ending, which to me at least is troubling and unsatisfying, Zero Dark Thirty is the story which one woman has created around certain pieces of information in her possession, a story which gets a bunch of people killed in the end, including the one person she’s really after.  A story where, once again--and this is the troubling, unsatisfying part--we’re set up to desire a specific knock-down that we never get.  What’s the knock-down?  The staple of all action movies: the moment where we get the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy die.   

No such satisfaction here.  When UBL gets shot, we see what the shooter sees, a fleeting glimpse of someone and then gunfire that hits him.  When the identifying snapshots of the dead body are taken, we see the blurred body and the flash of light and then the image on the pocket camera, but not a single one of those images is in focus or clear enough to give us a satisfying look at the features.  It's maddening, and I will argue that it's deliberately maddening, because that very lack of satisfaction is at the heart of what the movie is about. It's about knowledge in a world of intelligence. We are given that knowledge by people whom we can either trust or mistrust.  And because that act of trust or mistrust is vital to our belief or disbelief, we can only have an opinion about certain events.  We can't know for sure what really happened, because all we ever get is the story of what happened.  In the world of intelligence, “knowing” means “trusting the storyteller.”

And Maya, our storyteller--the one person who can know for sure?  When she identifies the dead body, we're looking up at her from behind the back of its head, like she's identifying us.  We don't get to see the face. We only get to see her looking down at the face, and giving her opinion.  If she says it's UBL, then we have to believe her.  We're in the same position as everyone else in the film: we either believe her or we don't. So do we believe her? Do we trust her? She could be lying.  She could be deluded.  She could be seeing what she wants to see.

Another director would have given us the money shot.  Spielberg would probably have swooped the camera up from behind Chastain so we could look over her shoulder and that halo of golden orange hair to view UBL's face head-on, all to some soaring John Williams music, because Spielberg wants to do your thinking for you.  Which is yet another movie this movie isn’t.

And yeah--to get totally esoteric on your ass--I think it’s more than coincidence that the main character’s name is the Sanskrit word for illusion.  The film sets up a world we think we know, and never follows through, leaving us to fill in the blanks with missing information.  In essence, it turns us into Maya. 

“This world of names and forms is maya,” as they say; and so is this film.

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