Controversial 'Zero Dark Thirty,' dumb 'Gangster Squad,' campy atomic nightmares
"Zero Dark Thirty," the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden arrives in theaters today amidst heavy controversy surrounding its depiction of torture (or "enhanced interrogation techniques") by U.S. intelligence operatives. It's a work of historical fiction, but the film states in its opening titles that it was "based on first-hand accounts."
Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Sony Pictures asking for a re-edit and called the movie "grossly inaccurate and misleading" about exactly what intelligence was gained this way, while at the same time admitting that some intelligence in fact "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques."
If the committee is admitting torture then, the entire controversy seems like splitting hairs and doesn't really matter because the film makes a broader point that absolutely rings true. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a remarkable achievement. Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal and Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (who both won for "The Hurt Locker") compress 10 years of U.S. intelligence work into one morally complicated, riveting, two-and-a-half-hour suspense drama.
Jessica Chastain plays a young CIA operative who develops a laser-sharp obsession with hunting down the world’s most-wanted criminal. She grows thick skin and becomes accustomed to enhanced interrogation techniques as lead after lead fizzles out. Eventually, her intelligence and CIA money track a courier to Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the most famous raid in modern history ensues.
Somehow, in the midst of all the dense information and the mounting tension, Chastain is able to develop a three-dimensional character, an independent woman fiercely dedicated to her job who defies expectations.
What makes "Zero Dark Thirty" such a fascinating film is that it plays both as an engaging procedural/thriller and a serious examination of the country’s moral compass. It is already doing what great movies do: Starting conversations. Nothing, not even the raid on the compound, is staged like a typical Hollywood film.
"Zero Dark Thirty" won’t leave you feeling like the Americans who celebrated in the streets after learning of bin Laden’s death. It will tie your stomach into knots.
••• Now that most of the serious Oscar contenders are out in theaters, it's time for January to reveal its true face when it comes to first-run films. The first movie to prove that the first of the year is typically a dumping ground for movies that aren't aimed at discerning filmgoers is here already.
"Gangster Squad" has the look of a classic-period film noir, even if it is in color. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Sean Penn are all dressed up in 1940s/'50s-era garb, smoking cigarettes with their fedoras turned down, and a neon-lit Los Angeles is brimming with energy and full of shadows.
But this movie, "inspired by a true story," is about as far from a film noir as you can get, plot and feel-wise. It's also dumb as hell. In addition to throwing the nonfiction book by Paul Lieberman out the window completely (a minor offense really), "Gangster Squad" ups the violence factor in place of developing any kind of mystery or investigative story whatsoever.
The movie chronicles an off-the-books group of L.A. cops who violated the law on a regular basis in order to put all-powerful mob boss Mickey Cohen (a hammy Sean Penn, buried under heavy nose makeup) behind bars. Even if I hadn't read the book, I'd be able to tell that the plot (or the barest thread of it) is complete hokum. It only exists to put the tough-as-nails cops and Cohen's gangsters in a series of contrived showdowns for more tommy-gun porn.
Poor Emma Stone is woefully underused as Cohen's girlfriend, a character invented for the movie to create a love triangle with Gosling's character. She looks terrific, as does everybody, but besides having no femme fatale qualities whatsoever, she has no personality either.
I was so bored during "Gangster Squad" that I started thinking about the future of classic-era gangster flicks and noirs. It might make an interesting film to use the era but deny the typical noir elements (both plot and visual-oriented) like "Gangster Squad" did. Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" wasn't a complete triumph, but viewing the period detail through a modern, digital handheld lens was at least an interesting experiment.
"Gangster Squad" is only interesting in that it's a tremendous waste of a ton of really talented people.
••• Liberty Hall gets the well-reviewed Danish 18th century drama "A Royal Affair," but this may be your last week to see "Anna Karenina" in the theater. It's a visual marvel and absolutely worth seeing on the big screen.
Friday night, Liberty Hall is hosting the Retro Cocktail Hour presents Cinema A Go Go, a double feature of "incredibly strange," low-budget atomic-themed movies from the 1950s and '60s. "The Atomic Submarine" features a brave submarine crew battling a giant bug-eyed monster, while "Atomic Age Vampire," a.k.a. "Atom Age Vampire," a.k.a. "Seddok, l'erede di Satana," is a peculiar Italian horror film where a disfigured stripper gets treatments from the glands of murdered women while the love-stricken doctor trying to help her also turns into a hideous monster.
Showtime is at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, and tickets are $7.