Catching Up With: Zero Dark Thirty – 2012

Post-9/11 America is a nation that can no longer count on the easy split between good and evil, morality and injustice. There are numerous divides, both in culture and our legislature, over how to deal with the smartest, most complex enemy we’ve ever encountered, specifically in the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by SEAL Team 6 on May 1, 2011.

That manhunt is the focus of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the latest masterpiece from director Kathryne Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (both won Oscars for “The Hurt Locker”). Like that previous film there is no political spin in this story of Maya (a fantastic Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who becomes hellbent on finding the 9/11 mastermind, by any means necessary. Some of those means are rational, others find her reckoning with her own values of justice and compromise. This movie is an incredible achievement, electrified by the mix of drama and truth, a procedural that stands with “Zodiac” and “All The President’s Men” in its ability to turn a myriad of names, dates and minutia into a detective story that reflects its time.

We are reminded of what that time means in the film’s prologue: a black screen and samples of the 911 calls made before the Towers went down. Bigelow establishes the film’s means of storytelling in the sequence: we don’t need obvious imagery to get a visceral reaction. She trusts her audience to make their own decisions about what they are seeing (in an age where films try desperately to always be about what they’re about, this treatment is a Godsend). That trust continues when the movie jumps forward to 2003, when Maya, the CIA agent described as a “killer” by her colleagues in Washington is shipped out to the agency’s field office in Islamabad, where detainees are put through intense bouts of “enhanced interrogation”…by which I mean torture, by fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke in a swaggering, scary turn). His ultimatum is simple for these suspected terrorists: “You lie to me, and I hurt you.”

A lot of ignorant, reactionary controversy has been stirred up over “Zero Dark Thirty” and it’s alleged condemnation/glorification of torture, and in my opinion, Bigelow is not interested in making an obvious statement about torture. Again, she trusts here audience to accept these atrocities on their own terms, ready to question their own thoughts on the subject. Maya is an extension of that conflict, which will define this entire film. She’s clearly disturbed by these actions, but her desire to find Osama Bin Laden is absolute. How do you reconcile finding a man who committed a staggering atrocity with the “by any means necessary” attitude used by the CIA at the time?

“Zero Dark Thrity”‘s 157 tense minutes are spent trying to answer that question, with thrilling results. As Maya goes after leads and tries to dodge red herrings and assassination attempts, she meets characters high and low with a plethora of great character actors making indelible impressions: James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s Ben Bradley-esque superior, Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s partner/only friend, Mark Strong as a bull-headed bureaucrat, and many others play their part in this complex investigation, which for nearly 10 years is kept from the cold case files by Maya.

Boal’s script, which benefited from some controversial access to secret files in the Pentagon and CIA, is a marvel of pacing, and dexterity, somehow being expansive while keeping remnants of a fascinating character study of Maya. This may sound strange, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie that young girls should see to get a taste of the tenacity of this character. We see her evolve in subtle increments, as the Bin Laden case wears at her soul. Maya is also fighting a two-front war: one is external, as she tries to prove herself among the lion’s den of alpha males that surround her in the CIA; the other is more internal, as she measures the cost of finding this man. Torture is an unethical quagmire; any relationships she has with her co-workers becomes frayed or ends tragically (kudos to this movie for not saddling her with a boyfriend or husband that repeats everything the script has already told us about her situation), and she becomes this hunt. Bigelow, who has faced similar strife in her career of directing movies in genres fueled by testosterone, obviously sees Maya as a kindred spirit. Chastain is nothing short of extraordinary, turning Maya into an action hero without ever needing to fire a gun; her weapon of choice is her determination, making the men who surround her who dare to question her pursuit of Bin Laden feel thoroughly emasculated upon doing so.

Bigelow, whose career was on life support until she came back with the incendiary “Hurt Locker,” tops even that triumph; she is nothing short of a virtuoso, effortlessly painting this chase across a decade-long canvass, culminating in the almost impossibly tense siege of Bin Laden’s final hiding place by the SEALs. Bigelow’s camera darts all over the CIA offices and the night-vision-lit corridors with the confidence of a master (mistress?) filmmaker. Maya’s triumph at the end is also hers; she and Boal have become the foremost chroniclers of the 21st-century, terror-induced haze of American process, whether it be militaristic or governmental.

But nothing in “Zero Dark Thirty” comes easy. Not the information, not the location of Bin Laden, not the planning of the siege and especially not the final reckoning Maya faces once the mission that has defined her existence is complete. The final two shots are very simple, but the questions they ask will echo through history. It’s in this moments we realize that it’s not just  Osama Bin Laden’s corpse that’s ridden with bullets; it’s Maya’s conscience as well. “Zero Dark Thirty,” along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” are the two greatest cinematic achievements of 2012, because they come from two of the best filmmakers on Earth, who aren’t afraid to push their stories into places that make people think long and deeply. A movie that salutes the hard work to find one of our greatest adversaries while at the same time looking at the damage that we inflicted on ourselves in the process? Now THAT is heroism.

Grade: A+

Catching Up With: On the Waterfront – 1954

There’s a scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” where Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), a former boxer who has become a disgraced, overweight wreck, prepares for his pathetic night club act by reciting a famous monologue that culminates with the line “I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve had class, I could’ve been somebody.” That famous speech is given by Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), the conflicted dock worker who is the soul of Elia Kazan’s legendary 1954 Best Picture winner, “On the Waterfront.” Like La Motta, Terry is a former boxer, but the similarities end there. Scorsese’s film was about a man who destroyed his own life through his own selfishness and shortcomings. Malloy’s fall is different, and is at the heart of his decision of whether or not to bring down the world he was forced to live in due to circumstances stemming from the selfishness and corruption of others. His sadness doesn’t come out of wretched pity like in “Raging Bull.” Part of “Waterfront”‘s greatness, other than the revolutionary performance given by Brando, is the incisiveness that Kazan, who has had his own problems with snitching on his peers, brings to the foggy cold and run-down world of the New York City docks in the 1950’s. That realism is what keeps this movie alive.

Working on the docks, unpacking the various shipments of goods that come into the city, is monotonous work, and it beats down everyone who works there. Terry is our gateway into this world, and those who run it. The dock union has been hijacked by the mob and Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, all-time character actor), who rule with iron fist, taking union dues for themselves and demanding that the workers stay “D and D”: deaf and dumb, about nefarious activities. Terry becomes complicit in the murder of Joey Doyle, who was knocked off for wanting to blow the whistle on Friendly’s racket. Friendly and  Terry’s brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) want him to push the whole affair out of his mind, and give him a cushy job for his compliance.

However, that is easier said than done. Terry, who in his youth was hotshot fighter on the fast track to a title shot, starts to question his station in life, thanks to some outside forces. There’s Joey’s sister Edith (Eva Marie Saint), stubborn and naive, who is shocked by the cruelty and corruption that defined Joey’s world. There is also Father Barry (Karl Malden), the tenacious Irish priest who manifests as a profound force of righteousness, ready to clean up the seedy underbelly of the neighborhood. But the preaching he does from his shaky pulpit falls on deaf ears, even after Joey’s death. But Barry senses guilt and regret in Terry.

Scorsese speaks at length about how Elia Kazan was an enormous influence on him, and you can definitely see it in “On the Waterfront.” The meditations on guilt and identity, as well as the spot-on, gritty sense of time and place are all here, standing (mostly) in stark contrast to the clean-cut, responsible movies American studios were cranking out at the time. The film is lived-in; it doesn’t have striking cinematography or spectacular camerawork, and some of his choices are pretty ham-fisted (Terry takes care of stool pigeons…get it?). The only overpowering technical element is Leonard Bernstein’s muscular, but occasionally overbearing score.  Kazan was rooted in the theater (he directed Brando in the stage production and film adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire”), and getting amazing performances was his top priority. Cobb, who gave one of my favorite performances ever in “12 Angry Men,” is just as great here, creating a ferocious blowhard in Johnny Friendly, using his air-horn voice to create an aura of absolute authority. Malden is just as boisterous as Berry, embodying a street-wise man of God, with a muckraking spirit counterbalanced with deep empathy. He becomes the conscience of the movie, the angel standing on Terry’s shoulder steering him towards salvation. It’s not a coincidence that Edith is a student at at Catholic university; the film is focused on bringing Terry up out of a world of sin with religious overtones. This was Saint’s debut role, which she won an Oscar for, so it’s easy to give her a mulligan for how uneven she is. Her wide-eyed horror at the world she is discovering and some of her intense emotional scenes with Brando do become overwrought but she still does an admirable job of giving her a fragile tenacity. But her histrionics do stick out more when compared to the subtle Method employed by Brando.

Many before me have waxed poetically and lengthily about Brando’s game-changing approach to acting, and that’s because he forever changed how characters (and what kind of characters) could be portrayed on screen. Movies were long rooted in the traditions of the theater, bludgeoning the audience with constant emoting to make sure they always understood the how and why of whoever they were playing. But Brando wasn’t interested in that. His performance as Terry Malloy did for movie acting what punk did for rock and roll: scraped away the artifice and made the form raw, simple, and even more powerful than it was before. Here was a movie star who crashed down to Earth, not afraid of looking weak and defeated, mumbling his lines and refusing good posture. Malloy’s guilt and frustration over his life as a dock worker, and how the powers that be forced him into that life against his will, starts as an itch that turns into a scratch that becomes a gaping wound. The Oscar that Brando won for “On the Waterfront” was a watershed moment: movies could have a dose of reality in them. Brando dug deep into this character, typified by one scene where Edith drops her glove. Brando completely improvised this scene (which drove many a director nuts), using the setting around him and what was created on the page by screenwriter Budd Schulberg to dive into Terry’s mind. When he is approached by investigators to blow the whistle on the docks, that conflict rings all the more true not just because of the performance, but also because of Kazan’s relationship with the story. Kazan was put in a similar position during this time when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, who put a jihad on Hollywood in their desperate search for Communists, many of whom they found out through Kazan’s testimony. This stigma never left Kazan and may have drastically damaged his career in Hollywood, but his experience bleeds into Terry’s. How do you keep your soul and integrity intact when you are forced to tear down the world you live in, even if it’s an unenviable world?

The essence of “On the Waterfront” is distilled in that famous scene in the back of the car with Terry and his older brother Charlie. When Terry says he “could’ve been a contender” before he was forced to throw a big fight, there are multitudes of sadness contained in something as simple as stressing a syllable. ” I could’ve been a contender, I could’ve been somebody, I could’ve had class.” It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in American movies, and “On the Waterfront,” although some of its elements haven’t aged particularly well, still wins by an early-round knockout. 

Grade: A

Catching Up With: The Master – 2012

“Open your eyes, come back to me.”

The renowned young adult author John Green has referred to religion as a “response to revelation.” It’s finding your own enlightenment, but in most cases it’s other people sharing their own “revelations” with you and becoming entwined with a community of followers, for better or worse. This is a theme that has run through all of writer/director/genius Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. This includes the family of adult film actors that Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler joined in the porno-“Goodfellas” extravaganza of “Boogie Nights,” the literally Biblical events that unite and tear apart strangers in Los Angeles in the stormy opera of “Magnolia,” to the more internal relationships that defined “Punch-Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood,” respectively romantic and exploitative. “The Master,” the latest visionary masterwork from Anderson, is perhaps the most literal, distilled variation on this theme. All of the controversy surrounding this film and its alleged connections to L.Ron Hubbard and Scientology is merely window dressing to the duel of intertwining souls in this enigmatic, surprisingly funny, sometimes confounding but always spellbinding marvel, one of the greatest achievements in American film so far this decade.

The setting is America shortly after the end of World War II, with traumatized sailor Freddie Quell (an amazing, scary Joaquin Phoenix) coming home, trying to reintegrate himself into the still adjusting post-war American society. Freddie is an insane, ferocious wreck. He is a man reduced to his base needs, which in the words of Mick Jagger, are to “fight, fuck and feed.” He gets into fights with customers while a photographer at a department store, he is obsessed with sex to a troubling degree, instantly devolving into a mangy dog in heat when women are around. And he “feeds” on his own special brand of cocktails containing Lysol, paint thinner and photo developing fluid, which affects his already damaged mind and comes close to killing a co-worker at the farm he works at briefly. Lost deep in his chemically-induced haze, Freddie stumbles onto a docked ship, which happens to be the flagship vessel of one Lancaster Dodd (an equally amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman, displaying nuance for days), the charismatic leader of a small flock calling themselves The Cause, and they’re on a pilgrimage to New York City. The cause focuses on forcing people into their own memories through “processing,” which will help them reach a sort of perfect stasus which allows them to live across billions of years. Dodd is preparing to release a second book on the subject, and his heavily pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams, doing an eerily quiet take on Lady Macbeth) is always at his side. Dodd samples some of Freddie’s elixir, and is immediately drawn to him; he is just the sort of broken (perhaps gullible) soul that Dodd can mold into an example of his vision of an eternal inner utopia.

Any fears that “The Master” will be a takedown of Scientology through the proxy that is the Cause (taking down Scientology is becoming pretty superfluous anyway) quickly dissipate once Dodd and Freddie meet. Freddie is naturally skeptical about the supernatural pablum Dodd is trying to sell him, but his resistance weakens as he gets to know him and his followers. Dodd is a charismatic speaker, with an air of empathy and quick wit; the perfect package to sell a cult with. When we see him explain the Cause, with its roots in time travel and cleansing one’s soul to strengthen their existence, does he know he’s full of shit, or does he believe in this mission, knowing that the effect it can have on people is more important than authenticity? And what does Freddie want from him? Does he see a father figure, a friend, or maybe something even deeper? Also, there is the biggest mystery of all: who is truly the “master”?

“The Master” isn’t interested in easy resolution; it truly is a mystery that only gets solved in the mind of the viewer. It’s appropriate that the Blu-ray cover has a Rorschach blot, because the relationships and Anderson’s vision of this story’s true purpose is like an amoeba, or a vessel onto which we can project our own interpretation of what this movie is trying to do. One of the most interesting things about Anderson,  is how he flipped the script on how director’s progress through their careers. A lot of filmmakers expand their scope as they get more comfortable with the medium, but Anderson’s films have contracted, both in their stories and in the filmmaking. “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” were bombastic ensemble pieces, with Anderson’s camera in overdrive, paying tribute to Scorsese and Altman in his ecstatic portraits of fractured souls in California. But the Adam Sandler deconstruction “Punch-Drunk Love” and the “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Oil” geyser “There Will Be Blood,”  (although the latter does have big things to say about the dark side of American capitalism), are relatively small scale, reducing all of the enormous gestures of storytelling ecstasy into intimate grace notes, keeping the camera a still observer. “The Master” continues down that path, with long takes and intricate framing compositions keeping the story at a low boil. Even though the movie is shot on glorious 65mm film, “The Master” focuses on indoor scenes and the duels between the strange souls that populate this world. 

You could write a novel on the the subtext of the relationship between Dodd and Freddie. Freddie is a lost soul, ravaged by his need for the flesh and his experiences in the war. To call what Phoenix, in the performance of his life, does in this movie “acting” kind of undersells it. Freddie feels like something ripped from his soul, with the nerve endings still exposed. In his first role since the elaborate retirement prank, he approaches the heights of early Brando in the blinding intensity he gives Freddie. His face and body are always twisting into odd shapes, as if he’s doing a parody of how people should compose themselves. Recalling the scalding male id of Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia” and Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull,” Freddie is an unpredictable menace who is still recognizably human.

On the other side is Dodd. Hoffman has appeared in every P.T. Anderson film except for “There Will Be Blood,” and he does some of his best acting ever as well. He is a snake-oil salesman, but there is some empathy in him, and troubling rage further underneath. He is able to listen to and debate unbelievers for so wrong, before he turns belligerent, desperate to protect his livelihood. His followers refer to him as “master,” but is he really? Could it be his wife Peggy, who Adams gives an calm tenacity that masks a cutthroat ambition, who is pulling the strings? She insists the Cause must attack the skeptical to expand their influence, and she uses sex, the same thing that consumes Freddie, to keep Dodd docile. This triumvirate is America’s relationship with religion in microcosm. Do the leaders need the congregation to preach to and control, or does the congregation need its leader to maintain the sense of community that gives some forward motion to lives that might be wayward or empty? Anderson’s beautifully written script, which brings back the wicked sense of humor that lied dormant for most of “There Will Be Blood,”  works in concert with his direction, drawing these characters astonishingly well while leaving mysteries underlying their true nature keeping “The Master” from every being fully solved.

There is one scene that distills the movie’s intent: the first processing scene, where Dodd first transforms Freddie from skeptic to believer: he tells him not to blink, and asks him a series of questions that ask about where he’s been, that the past might have the key to the future. Anderson’s camera is firmly directed on Freddie’s dark eyes, endless canyons that erupt with feeling once he is forced to relive the sordid sexual history in his family and his own relationship with a 16-year-old girl, who at first looks like another lecherous conquest but may have been the first person who accepted Freddie as a person. This scene is breathtaking and Freddie goes from a deranged unbeliever to a pitiful, pleading animal. Dodd becomes his mentor, father, friend and bully all at once.

But as questions arise questioning the honesty of the Cause, the war inside Freddie’s head rages like the endless blue ocean that we get plenty of shots of. Freddie does improve under the Cause’s spell, but at what cost? How safe is it to devote your life to something you can never fully understand? The film eschews normal structure to probe this question, but there is nothing clinical about “The Master.” There are still emotional crescendos all through this thing, hidden in plain sight. I still don’t have a full grasp on everything this movie does, but Paul Thomas Anderson, cementing his place as the greatest contemporary filmmaker in America if not the entire world, makes “The Master” an exhilarating journey of the mind that will mean different things to different people, which is the sign of a true work of art. Freddie and Dodd are in a tug-of-war that has gone on since the dawn of time, so there is no easy resolution. It is a strange, puzzling work, but there’s no doubt that this is truly an American masterpiece.

Grade: A+