Zero Dark Thirty

Well, I did say I wanted to make film reviewing more of a regular thing…

The story of Zero Dark Thirty’s production is a both maddeningly frustrating and ever so slightly hilarious one; the original concept, about an intelligence officer’s incessant, bordering on obsessive, quest to try and find Osama bin Laden was first brought up some time around 2010, and the screenplay was finished in the spring of 2011. The film’s centrepiece was the Battle for Tora Bora, which took place in late 2001; American and allied forces had been on the ground for just a few weeks before the Taliban government and political system was in total disarray. Al-Qaeda were on the run, and some quarters thought the war would be pretty much over within a few months, apart from a few troops left over to smoothen the new government’s coming into power (yeah, that really worked out well). All the intelligence (and it was good too) pointed to bin Laden’s hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border, and after a fierce bombing campaign the net was tightening. However, allied Pakistani and Afghan militia (who some believe were on the Al-Qaeda side) requested for a ceasefire so that some dead & wounded might be evacuated and prisoners taken; a move reluctantly accepted by the Americans, who then had to sit back as countless Al-Qaeda troops, including bin Laden, fled the scene.

Where was I? Oh yes, Zero Dark Thirty.

This was originally planned to be the central event of the film, but just as filming was about to commence the news broke that Bin Laden had, in fact, been killed which, whilst it did at least allow the filmmakers to produce a ‘happy’ ending, required that the whole script be torn up and rewritten. However, despite this, the tone and themes of the film have managed to remain true to this original morally ambiguous, chaotic story, despite  including no footage of any events prior to 2003. We still have the story of the long, confused and tortured quest of the small team of CIA operatives whose sole job it was to find and kill bin Laden, and it honestly doesn’t feel like the story would have felt much different were it to end with bin Laden still alive. And tortured is the word; much has been made of the film’s depiction of torture, some deploring the fact that it is shown to get vital information and arguing that the film ‘glorifies’ it, whilst others point out the way that the key information that finally revealed bin Laden’s location was found after the newly-inaugurated President Obama closed down the ‘detainee’ program. Personally, I think it’s depicted… appropriately. This is a very, very real film, telling a real story about real events and the work of real people, even if specifics aren’t the gospel truth (I mean, there’s only so much the CIA are going to be willing to tell the world), and nobody can deny that prisoners were tortured during the first few years of the war. Or, indeed, that the practice almost certainly did give the CIA information. If anything, that’s the point of the torture debate; it’s awful, but it works, and which side of the debate you fall on really depends on whether the latter is worth the former. In any case, it is certainly revealing that the film chooses to open with a torture scene, revealing the kind of pulls-no-punches intent that comes to define it.

There are the depictions of the chaos of the intelligence process, the web of indistinguishable truths and lies, the hopes pinned on half-leads, all amid plenty of timely reminders of just what is at stake; the attacks, both the big ones that everyone’s heard of and can relate to and the littler ones that hide away in the corners of the media reporting that manage to mean so, so much more to our chosen characters. Of particular note is the final attack on bin Laden’s compound, in one of the least ‘Hollywood’ and most painstakingly accurate portrayals of a military operation ever put onto the big screen. It also manages to come across as totally non-judgemental; torture, terrorism and even the killing of one of western culture’s biggest hate figures of the last decade are presented in exactly the same deadpan fashion. In another film, neutrality over contentious issues can come across as a weak cop-out; here it only adds to the realism.

The most obvious comparison to Zero Dark Thirty is The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous ultra-realistic story about the War on Terror, and it is a pretty fair comparison to say that what The Hurt Locker was to soldiers, Zero Dark Thirty is to intelligence. However, whilst The Hurt Locker was very much about its characters  and their internal struggles, with the events of the film acting more as background than anything else, Zero Dark Thirty is instead dedicated to its events (to say ‘story’ would rather overplay the interconnectedness and coherence of the whole business). Many characters are reduced to devices, people who do stuff that the film is talking about, and many of the acting performances are… unchallenging; nothing against the actors concerned, just to say that this is very much Bigelow’s film rather than her characters. The shining exception is Jessica Chastain as our central character of Maya, who manages to depict her character’s sheer drive and unflinching determination with outstanding aplomb: as well as showing her human side (in its brief appearances) in both touching and elegant fashion.

For all these reasons and more, I can wholeheartedly recommend Zero Dark Thirty as something people should try and see if they can; what I cannot do, however, is to really enjoy it. This isn’t because it isn’t fun, for lots of great films aren’t, but because it doesn’t really stir any great emotions within me, despite asking its fair share of moral questions about war. Maybe its because I tend to be very analytical over such matters, but I’m inclined to feel that the film has actually taken its neutrality and frankness of delivery a little too far. By having no really identifiable, consistent, empathetic characters beyond Maya, our emotional investment in the film is entirely dependent on our emotional investment in the subject matter, and by presenting it in such a neutral matter it fails to really do so in people without a strong existing opinion on it. I have heard this film described as a Rorschach test for people’s opinions on the war and the techniques used in it; maybe my response to this film just reveals that I don’t really have many.

Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

How Quantum Physics Explains Action Films

One of the key ideas used by cosmologists (yes, physics again, sorry) to explain away questions asked by annoying philosophical types is known as the anthropic principle. This has two forms (strong and weak) but the idea remains the same for both; that the reason for a situation being as it is is because, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be around to ask that question. For example, one might ask (as Stephen Hawking did in ‘A Brief History of Time’) why the universe is around 10 billion years old, a decidedly awkward question if ever there was one. The anthropic principle provides the simplest answer, stating that since organic life is such a complicated business and that the early universe was such a chaotic, unfriendly place, it is only after this vast amount of time that life forms capable of asking this question have been able to develop.

This answer of ‘because we’re here’ is a wonderfully useful one, albeit one that should be used with caution to avoid not answering valid question, and can be applied to problems that do not concern themselves directly with physics. One example concerns the origin of the human race, as we are all thought to stem from just a few hundred individuals who lived in East Africa’s Rift valley several million years ago. At that time our knowledge of weapons, fighting and general survival was relatively scant, and coming face to face with any large predator would have been a fairly assured death sentence; the prehistoric equivalent of a smart pride of lions, or even some particularly adverse weather one year, could have wiped out a significant proportion of the human race as it stood at that time in just a few months. Despite the advantages of adaptability and brainpower that we have shown since, the odds of natural selection were still stacked against us; why did we arise to become the dominant multicellular life form on this planet?

This question can be answered by listing all the natural advantages we possess as a species and how they enabled us to continue ‘evolving’ far beyond the mere natural order of things; but such an answer still can’t quite account for the large dose of luck that comes into the bargain. The anthropic principle can, however, account for this; the human race was able to overcome the odds because if we hadn’t, then we wouldn’t be around to ask the question. Isn’t logic wonderful?

In fact, one we start to think about our lives and questions of our existence in terms of the anthropic principle, we realise that our existence as individuals is dependent on an awful lot of historical events having happened the way they did. For example, if the Nazis had triumphed during WWII, then perhaps one or more of my grandparents could have been killed, separated from their spouse, or in some way prevented from raising the family that would include my parents. Even tinier events could have impacted the chance of me turning out as me; perhaps a stray photon bouncing off an atom in the atmosphere in a slightly different way could have struck a DNA molecule, causing it to deform the sperm that would otherwise have given me half my genes and meaning it never even made it to the egg that offered up the other half. This is chaos theory in action, but it illustrates a point; for the universe to have ended up the way it has depends on history having played out exactly as it has done.

The classic example of this in quantum physics is the famous ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ experiment, in which a theoretical cat was put into a box with a special quantum device that had a 50/50 chance of either doing nothing or releasing a toxic gas that would kill the cat. Schrodinger’s point was that, when the cat is put into the box, two universes emerge; one in which the cat is dead, and one in which it is alive. Until we open the box, we cannot known which of these universes we are in, so the cat must be thought of as simultaneously alive and dead.

However, another thought experiment known as the ‘quantum suicide’ experiment takes the cat’s point of view; imagine that the cat is an experimenter, and that he is working alone. Imagine you are that experimenter, and that you had stayed in the box for five iterations of the 50/50 life/death random event. In 31 out of 32 possible futures, you would have been gassed, for at least once the device would have selected the ‘death’ option; but in just one of these 32 alternative futures, you would still be alive. Moreover, if you had since got out of the box and published your results, the existence of those results is solely dependent on you being that lucky one out of 32.

Or, to put it another way, consider a generic action hero, in the classic scene where he runs through the battlefield gunning down enemies whilst other, lesser soldiers fall about him from bullets and explosions. The enemy fire countless shots at him, but try as they might they can never kill him. They try, but he survives and the film reaches its triumphant conclusion.

Now, assuming that these enemies are not deliberately trying to miss him and can at least vaguely use their weapons, if our action hero tried to pull that ‘running through a hail of bullets’ stunt then 999 times out of a thousand he’d be killed. However, if he was killed then the film would not be able to reach its conclusion, since he would be unable to save the heroine/defeat the baddie/deliver a cliched one-liner, and as such the story would be incomplete.  And, with such a crappy story, there’s no way that a film would get made about it; therefore, the action hero must always be one of the lucky ones.

This idea of always triumphing over the odds, of surviving no matter what because, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be around to tell the tale or even be conscious of the tale, is known as quantum immortality. And whilst it doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe jumping off buildings any time soon, it does at least give yo a way to bore the pants off the next person who claims that action movies are WAAYYYY too unrealistic.