Wednesday, January 23, 2013

But Why Can't I Save the World?

Courtesy of Santi Slade
After watching Zero Dark Thirty for a second time and binging on both 12-episode, 12-hour seasons of Homeland in just three days, I was struck by a pang of melancholy. For reasons that don’t trouble me nearly as much as they should, this realization had little to do with my supine disregard of exercise or summer internship applications. Instead, I felt insignificant and small, humbled by the extraordinary acts that both Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Carrie (Claire Danes) of Homeland achieve, the latter on a serialized basis.

Granted, these two heroines are among the most flawed protagonists in film and television history; Carrie spends significant screen time crying, screaming, panicking, bugging her eyes out or — and this is how Claire Danes wins all the Emmys — colliding her many bipolar symptoms at once, while Maya sits on the opposite end of the clinical spectrum, possessing more of a psychopathic coldness that I consider to be the film’s apparently-too-subtle critique of America’s callous, post-9/11 foreign policy. Regardless, as I emerged, bleary-eyed, from the couch and the cinema, I could not resist the superficial allure of such “heroic” work. I want to join the CIA!

Even after admiring the gray tones of counter-terrorism in Homeland anddefending Zero Dark Thirty’s anti-war message to anyone who will listen, I find myself at the most base and opportunistic of temptations. As damaged as Carrie and borderline sadistic as Maya may be, they pull off peerless feats of deduction and investigation that are based on hunches only they believe. And that’s pretty cool. In the vacuum of fiction, a writer (or, in the case of Homeland, a room of them) can prescribe witty retorts and enviable bravery to a character and, with a mental breakdown here and a sobbing fit there, still pass off the creation as human. It is when we believe that these superhumans could even possibly be real that the aforementioned sadness, the most unwarranted of phenomena, creeps in.

Let us take a more agreeable example, especially as I remember the more unsavory details of Maya’s character. For me, Harry Potter embodied this saintly, yet still powerfully empathetic, protagonist. Here is a teenager, just slightly older than me when I first read The Deathly Hallows in 2007, vanquishing the greatest evil his world has ever seen. How does he do it? (*Spoilers, I guess*) He walks into a dark forest, guided by the souls of all the family and friends who have perished in the decades-long war he is about to end and accepts that, to fulfill his destiny, he must die. Harry follows through every step without curling into the fetal position or crapping his pants — he approaches his certain demise with maturity and grace. And, after flatlining right there in the Forbidden Forest, he returns to life to kill Voldemort in front of all his peers. Rowling likely intended Harry’s defiant victory to strike the reader as inspirational and comforting, yet I found myself plummeting into an existential crisis as I examined my own life and found my worst struggles woefully pathetic compared to Harry’s. Gee, I haven’t levitated a feather, no less slayed anything close in size or strength to a basilisk or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!

Am I alone in finding some of our culture’s most popular and satiating movies, TV shows and books inherently depressing? That I expect an answer from a rhetorical question may hold an answer. Moving away from the morally questionable heroines of Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty, the hagiographic elevation of protagonists in more crowd-pleasing works like Harry Potter, Star Wars or Les Misérables may very well provoke an unintended moment of self-reflection. The Sopranos knows this well: In a very meta scene, gangster Christopher Moltisanti freaks out after reading in screenwriting books about how every character has an arc. “Where’s my arc?” he asks.

Of course, the only way to cast off this pall of self-deprecation is to build your own character — in a video game, that is. Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty don’t cut it, as they focus only on objectives within a predetermined playing style, leaving no other options for the player but to master the mechanics. Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy Mass Effect, rightly considered a masterpiece of the medium, still falls short in granting the player complete control of his or her destiny. Although the player must make a plethora of in-game choices, the core narrative still follows one of three — good, bad or neutral — pre-determined paths that all funnel into basically the same ending. The storywriter has more authority over the narrative than the player, which is no different than non-interactive media like film and literature.

This brings me to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the black hole that annihilated the rest of my free time over winter break, and then some. This game makes no attempt to emulate cinema through shot reverse shot dialogue exchanges, “cutscenes” or “quick time events,” a la Mass Effect. Rather, Skyrim throws the player into a massive world of high fantasy, borrowing names and creatures from Norse and Camelot folklore and severing all other ties from the world of our own. Sure, there is an epic story involving a prophecy and a mythical villain, but like Fallout 3, the other popular game by Bethesda Studios, the plot serves as a vehicle for gameplay and not the other way around.

A game like Skyrim offers an oddly empowering experience. Why stick to a sword, bow or fire spell when you can wield them all simultaneously? The citizens of nine cities and countless villages, forts and dungeons depend on your agency to decide a Civil War, reconcile warring factions and kill a plague of dragons, in whatever order you choose. Or you can forget about all that and buy a house, collect potions and assist the local business owner in finding his lost family relic. But be wary about investing too much into your character: The humbling heroics of Harry Potter and Homeland have nothing on realizing that your video game character is living a more listless life than your own.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Review

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released in 2012

9/11 introduced the world and the 21st century to a new kind of evil. Al-Qaeda struck unannounced and nearly unseen, inspiring fear and a gnawing sense of helplessness that no one has been able to fully shake since. The rules of war changed once again, and the U.S. government adapted with wiretapping and “enhanced interrogation” techniques. If there was one boogeyman behind the madness, it was Osama bin Laden, though it would be an oversimplification, of course, to blame it on any one individual.

The triumph of Zero Dark Thirty is that it takes what could have been jingoistic genre fare — the pursuit and killing of bin Laden — and tangles it in the global turmoil we have lived through over the past 11 years. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning pair behind The Hurt Locker, open the film with a traumatic audio montage of 9/11 distress calls and dot the background and, in a couple of startling moments, the foreground of the plot with other al-Qaeda attacks, like the 2005 London and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombings. The result is an epic of incredible focus, a 157-minute film that earns every second. Zero Dark Thirty belongs to us, now, as a candid document of the anxiety and dislocation of our time. The filmmakers closely follow historical record while creating a piece of art, a riveting cinematic experience and the best American film of the year.

Like Argo and Lincoln, spoiler warnings are unnecessary. The foreknowledge of the main plot puts added pressure on the filmmakers to find other ways to generate suspense. Bigelow, cinematographer Greig Fraser and editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg respond with a look and feel more polished and artful than a BBC news feed, though not by much. That is a compliment, as the film never brings attention to itself. Sure, Fraser composes beautiful images — Arab fruit markets never cease to dazzle — and Bigelow packs some profound juxtapositions into single frames — a North American map reflecting a white, Muslim CIA official (Fredric Lehne) practicing Salah in his office must mean something. But there is a spontaneity to the film that keeps you constantly on edge, in constant fear that innocent people will die yet again. And when a few dozen of them inevitably do, the film cuts to actual news coverage of the attack, and the line between reenactment and reality stays blurred.

CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is, in her own words, “the motherfucker who found” bin Laden. She truly is, but the film — in one of the its boldest choices — shies from granting its protagonist too much sympathy. She often loses it with bureaucrats, from her Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) to the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini, here for comic relief), and not in a sassy, Sandra Bullock kind of way. She is unhinged, bordering on insanity. Multiple characters at multiple times stress the impossibility of her goal or the incompetence of her colleagues; most memorable is a tirade by Mark Strong, reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross but with, you know, actual stakes. While you may admire her resilience, Maya comes off as cold, internal and sexless, the opposite of the giddy Southern housewife she played in The Help. She finds a friend in rival-turned-BFF Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, unjustly shut out from supporting actress awards so far), but even when they trade texts with “brb” and “u” in them, Maya always bends the conversation back to bin Laden. Chastain keeps Maya at arm’s length, which is incredible to think about — somehow, the mastermind behind bin Laden’s death is just not very likable.

Parallel to the film’s treatment of Maya lies the big rhetorical question of Zero Dark Thirty: We killed bin Laden, but at what cost? This core, and obviously unanswered, question has gone over the heads of all the senators and columnists manufacturing a baseless controversy over the film’s alleged “pro-torture” stance. Indeed, the first half-hour consists of graphic sequences where agent Dan (Jason Clarke) and eventually Maya waterboard and emasculate an al-Qaeda suspect (Reda Kateb, in a thankless role), not to mention confine him to an awfully small box. For one, the prisoner never seems to disclose any actionable intelligence, though that plot point is up for debate. The larger issue remains Maya’s, and in turn the U.S. government’s, own morality in executing this mission. Regardless if torture was necessary to locate bin Laden or to win this war, Zero Dark Thirty wants you to consider whether these two goals were morally bankrupt from the start. Far from lionizing President Obama or excusing Dick Cheney, the film sees past partisan politics and quietly contemplates whether justice during wartime can be called justice at all. The final shot grants credence to this reading, and it is not heretical to consider the cost of a 10-year quest for vengeance. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty approaches something akin to Direct Cinema (a documentary film genre that aims to record objective truth) by staging some version of the truth, refusing a didactic little bow and letting the audience think for itself. That last part may be the problem.

I had conflicting emotions during the final 30 minutes, when SEAL Team Six flies to, invades and clears bin Laden’s compound. Viewed on a big screen with surround sound, the experience will render you immobile (a special shout-out to sound designer Paul Ottosson, who engineers the mesmerizing stealth helicopter sound effect, and sound mixer Ray Beckett, who keeps the gunfights startling and realistic). The deliberate pacing and night-vision lighting immerse you to an almost unbearable extent, like a fly on the soldiers’ helmets. The sequence inspires fear, angst and awe, the latter of which stuns the soldier who took the final and fateful shots — all he can say is “I shot the third floor guy,” as his comrades scramble to vacate the premises. Around this moment, I was on the verge of tears as a Navy SEAL handed one of Osama’s children a glowstick to quiet her down and coax out her father’s name for confirmation. I don’t know how to explain this emotional impact or why it struck me then. The mastery of Zero Dark Thirty is that it operates on an ineffable register, free to collide feelings and abstain from easy answers. Call it relativistic or postmodern or any viable, theoretical tag. All I know is that the world post-9/11 has been one of confusion and contradiction. Zero Dark Thirty also knows this, and by draping America’s triumphant moment of victory under the same ambiguity, it has rewritten history while staking a spot in it, too.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Top 10 Films of 2012

Thanks to late-December releases and Netflix Instant, 2012, in my mind at least, redeemed itself as an important, diverse and damn good year for movies. Zero Dark Thirty, not even in wide-release until this Friday, and Bernie, the streamable indie darling, were particular standouts in my viewings over the past few weeks. The list below reflects, in somewhat arbitrary order, the films that challenged me and hit a deeper register than just entertainment.

But allow me to conduct inventory first: I wrote 20 film reviews this year in addition 13 columns; reviews of televisionvideo games and stand-up comedy; an obituary and untold college essays, one viewable here. There are plenty more interviews and Cornell-specific write-ups viewable on The Cornell Daily Sun website. The numbers above in no way can be described as "prolific," at least compared to those who do this professionally, but it was a healthy and experimental year of writing that I hope I can top in 2013.

My Top 10 Films of 2012: 

1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. This Is Not a Film
3. The Master
4. Lincoln
5. Life of Pi
6. Bernie
7. Skyfall
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
9. Cosmopolis
10. Cloud Atlas / Holy Motors (tie)

A few honorable mentions that could easily swap places with most of the above picks: AmourBraveThe GreyMoonrise KingdomSeven Psychopaths and Silver Linings Playbook.