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.

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FILM FORTNIGHT: The Counterfeiters

Very few people I know have heard of this film, not that I’m terribly surprised; it takes something pretty special for any foreign language film (the film is Austrian, so spoken in German) to make it big in the somewhat saturated UK film market, and we are hardly short of films about Nazism in any language. Still, that’s no reason to malign it straight off the bat, and I managed well enough with just the subtitles.

The film’s story covers yet another of the ‘hidden tales’ of the Second World War; some small aspect of the war plan of either side that was in its own way, big or small, somehow critical to the war’s outcome. It is a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t run out of these stories at some point, since there were only so many people in Europe at the time to have an Amazing True Story happen to them, but happen they clearly did. This particular story concerns a wing of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of Jews and political enemies of the Nazi state died during the war, either by being worked to death or systematically exterminated; many others were transferred to Auschwitz to be killed. However, even in Germany at the time there was some dissidence to the state’s fanatical Jew-hating; the Jews were a successful sect of German society, with many skilled doctors, engineers, bankers and such among them, and it was a truth that (understandably) went unsaid that by locking up, driving away and killing all these people the Third Reich was hamstringing itself. Apparently, even the high-ups recognised the potential usefulness of some of these people, and here our film takes up the story; our main protagonist is career forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), arrested for… well… being a career forger, as well as a Jew. However, his talents soon make themselves known and he is moved to Sachsenhausen along with as many other prisoners the Nazis can find with skills related to artwork, printing or forgery. Their task? Come up with a facility for the mass-production of dud British and American banknotes, with the aim to flood the market with them and thus destabilise the Allied economy through hyperinflation. Some might call this a slightly eccentric strategy, but after hyperinflation had totally annihilated the German economy in the early 1930s (paving the way for the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933) the Germans knew all too well how devastating this had the potential to be.

However, this complex historical context is all so much background noise, for the real meat of the film concerns our characters. Every one is representative of the complex mess of moral ambiguity and contradiction that the prisoners find themselves in; Sorowitsch is something of a cynical moneymaker, but finds himself in the role of leader and spokesperson for the band of forgers, and whether his priorities lie with his own survival or empathy for them becomes an increasingly grey area as the film progresses. Then there is the question of the act of collaboration; some are quite clearly happy to do whatever the Nazis want if it means they can stay alive, but others are quite plainly disgusted at the idea of working for those who would quite happily have seen them dead. This moral standpoint is personified by the character of Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose memoirs the film is based upon; not only does he vehemently hate the Nazis and does everything he can to fight back against them, but his every action is indicative of his moral repulsion against their situation. Because of the importance of their work, the forgers live a relatively well-off existence, with decent clothes, good living conditions and sufficient food. By contrast, the life of a less lucky prisoner was horrific; fed on scraps when they were fed at all (there are several accounts of prisoners starving to death as concentration camps and factories argued over whose job it was to feed them), they were subjected to backbreaking labour and near-constant systematic abuse from their guards. The death rate was correspondingly horrific. This gulf in quality of life between them and their fellow prisoners, never seen until the very end of the film to provide a stark, brutal contrast, is of personal significance to Burger (his wife is imprisoned elsewhere), and whilst his comrades dress themselves in the clothes of the dead, he remains clad in prison wear, a constant and undoubtedly effective visual reminder of the moral mess the film finds itself in.

This moral quagmire is, really, the film’s underlying theme, the question of what is right versus what will keep you alive ever-present. Other films have addressed this message, but the setting of this one makes it especially poignant; across the vast expanse of German-controlled Europe, countless of ordinary people really did collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, and the shame associated with this act still lingers today. In some cases, collaborators may have believed in the Nazi ideals, but doubtless most were simply trying to make life a little less hard in whatever way they could. Was what they did right? What is worth sacrificing, worth accepting, in order to stay alive? Far better philosophers than me have pondered that question and failed to come to an answer.

However, for me the crowning moral contradiction of the lot comes in the form of the prisoner’s Nazi controller, Herzog (Devid Streisow; in real life the operation was headed by a man named Bernhard Kruger). A softly-spoken family man who is proud to say that he never beats his children, it is Herzog who is responsible for the prisoners’ comfortable existence; and an undoubtedly ruthless Nazi who threatens to start shooting prisoners if anyone conspires to sabotage the operation (adding another layer of moral quandary to Burger’s sabotage attempts). In more ways than one, Herzog is symbolic of the strange quirks of moral reasoning of the Nazi party as a whole; a political party who, whilst happy to gas millions upon millions of Jews for no good reason, had very strong objections to hunting, cruelty to animals and smoking (they were the first to show that smoking is unhealthy, although nobody took them seriously at the time). Herzog is a metaphor for the system he represents, just as the film is a metaphor for a thousand stories of small-time collaborators across the continent.

The Counterfeiters is most certainly not a perfect film. Whilst it is grim, gritty, realistic and deals with some genuinely meaningful subject matter, director Stefan Ruzowitsky doesn’t seem able to differentiate between the gravity of different scenes, making those that should have packed a powerful punch seem rather tired and listless. Whilst not taxing for the brain, it is rather hard to enjoy for this reason, and whilst the moral ambiguity of the characters gives them purpose it is not done in such a way as to make them seem sympathetic and likeable. No, I cannot definitely say that I enjoyed The Counterfeiters, but I respect the hell out of it for telling a story that tries to mean something, and for having the guts to be unconventional.

PS: Reading around some of the source material for this film, I came across the story of Bernhard Kruger, the real-life version of Herzog. His story and the story in the film do not apparently synch up (even Adolf Burger is on record as saying that the film does not portray events as they really happened), and he was apparently just as much of a murderer as the likes of Rudolf Hoess (the commandant of Auschwitz); according to Burger, he murdered six ill prisoners in the final days of the war to prevent them from talking when they went to hospital. However, his story becomes interesting when he was put on trial for war crimes; several former members of his unit apparently gave evidence of his good treatment of them during the war, and he was acquitted; because this film didn’t have quite enough moral ambiguity on its own…

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

Freedom Bridge

I must begin today with an apology- I’m going to go on about games today SORRY DON’T RUN AWAY IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME! Instead of looking into gaming as a whole today I want to focus on just one game.

Before I do, I should probably give you the rundown as to what I am getting at. The majority of the population, including (and quite possibly especially) the gaming population, generally views games as a pastime- a relaxation, a release, a chance to take out some of their surplus aggression and stress on an unassuming NPC. However, some people are willing to go further, and suggesting that games be considered something special on the mass-media scale- not just another tool for making money, but a tool of expression and delivery unmatched by even TV or film. In short, some people believe that games are a unique and special form of art.

This is the subject of quite some argument among both gamers, artists and (of course, since they are never ones to let a good contentious issue go to waste) journalists, but to explain both sides of the argument would be long, tedious and biased of me. So instead I thought I would present to you a case study, an example of just what the Games Are Art crowd are going on about. I give you Freedom Bridge.

Freedom Bridge is a free-to-play online Flash game (I’ll include a link to it at the bottom). It takes all of a minute or two to play (depending on how you play it), and it’s generally about as simple as games come. You play as a single black square on a white background, able to move up, down, left or right using the arrow keys. Your movement is somewhat restricted- you cannot move up or down beyond the dimensions of the playing screen you start with, and cannot move very far to your left either. Your only choice to progress involves moving right, towards a curly line that stretches across the screen in front of you. You cannot move to either side of it- your only choice is to go straight through. As you do so, your movement instantly slows- your block is struggling to move through, and when it finally does, it is leaving a thin, sparse trail of red spots behind it. The spots are blood, and that curly line is barbed wire.

Your direction is still limited to moving right, through a large expanse of white screen broken only by you and your trail. Stopping for a while causes the spots to build up into a bigger red mass- your blood piling up. As you continue to move right, another length of barbed wire appears in front of you, and you once again have no choice but to go through it. Once again, your motion becomes painfully slow, only this time, when you’re on the other side, some of your loss of speed remains, and the trail of blood is thicker and more obvious. You may turn back if you wish, but will not find anything new- your only real choice is to press on right. All the time the sound of rushing water, playing since the start, is getting slowly louder. Another length of barbed wire appears and, beyond it, the source of the sound is revealed- a fast-flowing river, with a bridge crossing it. Once again, your sole choice is to go through the wire, and once again you are slowed still further, and your bloody trail becomes still thicker. Your movement is laboured now- but the bridge awaits. You cannot travel up or down the river, so your only choice is to cross the bridge. As you do so, your movement now slow and bloody, a shot rings out, and you disappear into a splat of blood. That’s it. The game doesn’t even fade out (well, not for a while anyway). There’s just the sight of the blood, and the sound of the flowing water.

At first glance, this barely warrants its description as a game. This is a game that makes platforming look open-world, has no levels or sub-divisions- hell, there aren’t even any characters, or clearly defined plot for that matter. There are no options, no way to win. And that is the secret to its effectiveness.

The game does, in fact, have a plot, but it’s hidden amongst the detail. Think of the title, Freedom Bridge- that bridge is the embodied representative of freedom, of escape, of liberation, whilst the barbed wire and your side of the river in general is symbolic of restraint, or oppression. Think of the wire itself- used to guard borders by oppressive regimes who don’t want their citizens leaving. This bridge could be in Korea (where it is actually based on), cold war-era Germany, Zimbabwe, wherever- it represents them all. The white landscape itself is symbolic of the bleak emptiness of the borderlands, devoid of care and emotion. Think of the way it ends- the sound of the water very gently fades out to nothing, but for a long time the scene doesn’t change (and when it does, it’s onlt for some rather poignant context). Your death doesn’t change things, doesn’t make the world a different place. The world is uncaring, you appear immaterial, and all your sacrifice has done is coloured the earth red. And then, think of the game element itself. If you were to just hold down the right arrow key, you could replicate the experience almost exactly by watching a short video. But the effectiveness of that video? About zero. The important detail is that you have a choice of how to proceed. You can, if you want, go up, or left, or down, you can try to look for the thinnest points in the wire, you can try to see if there’s another way across the river- if you wanted to, you could draw pictures with your own bloodstained trail, or even (if you had rather too much time), turn every spot of white on the map red with it. The point is that you have all this choice, unavailable if this were simply a film, but it doesn’t make a scrap of difference. No matter what you do, the game is still going to end with you as a splat of blood on that bridge. This is a game about inevitability, and whatever you do in it, you are only delaying the inevitable. Death is inevitable. For the poor soul trying to escape their oppressive regime, there is no way out- only the icy grip of death awaits them.

Without the element of choice that the game offers, this message simply cannot be delivered with the same effectiveness. The experience of it cannot be replicated by a film, or even a piece of art- this is a an experience which, when thought about, can be immensely harrowing and poignant, and yet cannot be replicated in the same way by any classical art form- only the interactivity of games allows it to be quite so special. Some people argue that this kind of experience cannot really be called a game. But even so… if the experience that delivers isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.

To play Freedom Bridge, follow this link: http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/freedom-bridge/flash