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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“If I die before I wake…”

…which I might well do when this post hits the internet, then I hope somebody will at least look down upon my soul & life’s work favourably. Today, I am going to be dealing with the internet’s least favourite topic, an idea whose adherence will get you first derided and later inundated with offers to go and be slaughtered in one’s bed, a subject that should be taboo for any blogger looking to not infuriate everybody; that of religion.

I am not a religious person; despite a nominally Anglican upbringing my formative years found most of my Sundays occupied on the rugby pitch, whilst a deep interest in science tended to form the foundations of my world beliefs- I think (sometimes) to some personal detriment. This is a pattern I see regularly among those people I find as company (which may or may not say something about my choice of friends)- predominantly atheists with little or no religious upbringing who tend to steer clear of religion and its various associated features wherever possible. However, where I find I differ from them tends to be when the subject is broached when in the present of a devoutly Christian friend of mine; whilst I tend to leave his beliefs to himself and try not to spark an argument, many others I know see a demonstration of his beliefs as a cue to start on a campaign of ‘ha ha isn’t your world philosophy stupid’, and so on.  I tend to find these attacks more baffling and a little saddening than anything else, so I thought that I might take this opportunity to take my usual approach and try to analyse the issue

First up is a fact that most people are aware of even if it hasn’t quite made the jump into an articulate thought yet; that every religion is in fact two separate parts. The first of these can be dubbed the ‘faith’ aspect; the stories, the gods, the code of morals & general life guidelines and such, all of the bits that form the core of a system of beliefs and are, to a theist, the ‘godly’ part of their religion. The second can be labelled the ‘church’ aspect; this is the more man-made, even artificial, aspect of the religious system, and covers the system of priesthood (or equivalent) for each religion, their holy buildings, the religious leaders and even people’s personal interpretation of the ‘faith’ aspect. Holy books, such as the Bible or Torah, fall somewhere in between (Muslims believe, for example, that the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, translated through the prophet Muhammed) as do the various prayers and religious music. In Buddhism, these two aspects are known as the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), and together with Buddha form the ‘three jewels’ of their religion. In some religions, such as Scientology (if that can technically be called a religion) the two aspects are so closely entwined so as to be hard to separate, but they are still distinct aspects that should be treated separately. The ‘faith’ aspect of religion is, in most respects, the really important one, for it is this that actually formulates the basis of a religion; without a belief system, a church is nothing more than a place where people go to shout their views at those who inexplicably turn up. A religion’s ‘church’ aspect is its organised divisions, and exists for no greater or lesser purpose than to spread, cherish, protect and correctly translate the word of God, or other parts of the ‘faith’ aspect generally. This distinction is vital when we consider how great a difference there can be between what somebody believes and what another does in the same name.

For example, consider the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban currently fighting their Jihad (the word does not, on an unrelated note, technically translate as ‘holy war’ and the two should not be thought of a synonymous) in Afghanistan against the USA and other western powers. Their personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam (their ‘church’ aspect) has lead them to believe that women do not deserve equal rights to men, that the western powers are ‘infidels’ who should be purged from the world, and that they must use force and military intervention against them to defend Islam from said infidels- hence why they are currently fighting a massive war that is getting huge amounts of innocent civilians killed and destroying their faith’s credibility. By contrast, there are nearly 2 million Muslims currently living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not interpret their religion in the same way and are not currently blowing up many buildings- and yet they still identify as Islamic and believe in, broadly speaking, the same faith. To pick a perhaps more ‘real world’ example, I’m sure that the majority of Britain’s Catholic population steadfastly disagree with the paedophilia practiced by some of their Church’s priests, and that a certain proportion also disagree with the Pope’s views on the rights of homosexuals; and yet, they are still just as Christian as their priests, are devout believers in the teachings of God & Jesus and try to follow them as best as they can.

This I feel, is the nub of the matter; that one can be simultaneously a practising Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else and still be a normal human being. Just because your vicar holds one view, doesn’t mean you hold the same, and just because some people choose to base their entire life around their faith does not mean that a person must be defined by their belief system. And, returning to the subject of the ridicule many practising theists suffer, just because the ‘church’ aspect of a religion does something silly, doesn’t mean all practitioners of it deserve to be tarred with the same brush- or that their view on the world should even matter to you as you enjoy life in your own way (unless of course their belief actively impedes you in some way).

I feel like I haven’t really got my point across properly, so I’ll leave you with a few links that I think illustrate quite well what I’m trying to get at. I only hope that it will help others find a little more tolerance towards those who have found a religious path.

And sorry for this post being rather… weird