Tag Archives: cia

Review – Zero Dark Thirty (15) [2013]

Zero Dark Thirty - title banner2

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Kathryn Bigelow – The Loveless, The Weight of Water, The Hurt Locker

Cast:

Music Composer:

When it comes to films about historical events, like Titanic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lincoln, one knows how they will end before even starting them. Yet, such movies can be just as, if not more entertaining and gripping than movies where one does not know what is going to happen. The same is true for the arresting Zero Dark Thirty, which also sends out a potent message to America’s enemies.

The film is a politico-historical drama based around real events. ‘Zero dark thirty’ is a military codename for half past midnight, and it is the time that the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden took place on the night of 1st/2nd May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden's location.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Zero Dark Thirty is all about the CIA’s attempts to find the world’s most wanted man following his masterminding of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2011, and his subsequent vanishing. The film is an unhurried, yet captivating thriller that does not feel like it is 157 minutes long. Like with The Hurt Locker, it has a grounded feel, and therefore lacks the hyperbole and surrealism of 24. Even the ending mirrors this mood, which is rare and noteworthy for Hollywood.  It is too early to know how true Zero Dark Thirty is to the reality, but it feels like a realistic and fair representation of events. First, it illustrates how dangerous it is for Americans to be in Afghanistan/Pakistan, thereby emphasising how heroic they are being out there. Second, it demonstrates some of the difficulties CIA agents face operating in the field, trying to unearth information about their targets (who have multiple identities and never seem to stay in the same place twice). Third, the movie shows the CIA adopting dubious torture methods and degrading treatment upon suspected and actual terrorists in undisclosed locations in their desperate bid to find leads on Bin Laden.

There has been much controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture adopted by US personnel in 2002 and afterward (when it was officially outlawed). Arguably, the film enables Bigelow to reveal her anti-American/anti-war bias again, like she did so painfully in the critically-acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Yet, it is doubtful that she glorifies torture here. Instead, she lets viewers decide for themselves, in a similar vein to Rendition, if torture is ever necessary or useful, which is an intelligent way of kicking off a moral debate on an important and current subject.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) arguing with his and Maya's boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, right) arguing with his and Maya’s boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler, left), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

But what is even more striking than the portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in Zero Dark Thirty is how the film has painted the War on Terror as merely Osama Bin Laden. Yes, he is the figurehead of modern-day Jihadi terrorism and his death is a symbolic hammer-blow to the cause. But by 2011 it is dubious how influential Bin Laden was to the pursuit of world Jihadism, due to the emergence of numerous Al-Qaeda splinter groups, such as Al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab, among others. Yet, these other terrorist groups are barely given a mention, which is strange considering the security threat they pose to the world.

Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, even for the sake of context, the complex and conflicting relationships between America, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the contradictory nature of the Pakistani state itself. (Anyone remember David Cameron saying that Pakistan looks “both ways” on terrorism?)

However, if one can ignore the lack of political background, one can enjoy strong performances from all the cast. At the forefront, is Jessica Chastain, who demonstrates, for the first time, that she can play a leading role just as solidly as she can a supporting one when given the chance. Her single-minded character, Maya, is given the central task of finding Bin Laden. Maya might get her way sometimes in a contrived manner for reasons of plot, but Chastain looks so natural in the role, and the way Maya changes under the circumstances is indicative of Chastain’s talent.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Maya’s solemnity is in mild contrast to her two main colleagues, the tough-yet-amusing Dan (Jason Clarke) and the bitchy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Both Clarke and Ehle play well, and are more empathetic than Maya. Nevertheless, they are both outshone by Chastain’s performance.

Over-all, Zero Dark Thirty is a sincere and honest attempt to recreate the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. That one knows how the movie will end is irrelevant, as it is an engrossing and tense watch. The film might be devoid of much of the current context vis-à-vis the War on Terror, and it might be overly-simplified; yet, what it lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in compelling performances, not least from Jessica Chastain. Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty sends out a stark message to America’s enemies: it doesn’t matter where they hide or for how long they hide, America will find them and bring them to justice.

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Review – The Dark Knight Rises (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 5/5

Director:

Cinematographer:

Cast:

Music Composer:

Once in a decade, perhaps, are audiences treated to a trilogy wherein the three films are not only worthy of five stars each, but also raise the bar over the movie that preceded it. Ten years ago, it was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which culminated beautifully in the epic The Return of the King. Now, it is the turn of Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Legend saga, which has climaxed spectacularly with The Dark Knight Rises.

The monstrous-looking, hulking Bane (Tom Hardy). Ra’s Al Ghul’s successor intends to finish off Gotham once and for all, forcing Batman to come out of his virtual retirement.

Eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) defeated the Joker, killed the District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and disappeared. Since then, Gotham has branded Batman an enemy, after he took responsibility for Dent’s crimes to uphold the reputation of the ‘White Knight.’ Whilst away from his former exploits, Bruce has been a recluse, investing some of his considerable wealth in peaceful nuclear energy and the Wayne Foundation, where he uses the expertise of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to good effect.

However, Gotham now faces a new threat. The League of Shadows has returned and is led by the masked, super-strong Bane (Tom Hardy), who is out to destroy Gotham and Batman with it. After Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is wounded trying to take out Bane, leaving the police almost solely in the hands of the young idealist officer, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Bruce feels that the time has come to don the bat-gear again. But how will Gotham take to his return? And what will Batman do with the criminal Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who has a mysterious interest in Wayne Manor and Wayne Enterprise?

Rises’ plot might be slow-moving for the first hour and it certainly requires great levels of concentration for the entire 164 minutes; yet, the film is intellectually-stimulating, absorbing and multi-layered. It also builds up to a stunning, well-thought-through climax, ensuring that those who give the movie their full attention will be rewarded.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the storyline is that Nolan cleverly links Rises with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the two previous instalments in the series. He does this by making the caped crusader rise to a new mental and physical challenge, which is a direct result of his prior victory over the League of Shadows; and by illustrating the relevance of Batman and Harvey Dent as symbols of hope against injustice and corruption. (Not to mention demonstrating how susceptible the fabrics of society are to implosion when the symbols are smashed.)

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) wearing her figure-revealing ‘cat’ outfit while she steals what she needs at night and fights her way out of trouble.

Furthermore, Nolan intelligently incorporated genuine, present-day issues and analogies into the previous two films to make them relatable to the epoch. He does it again in Rises. Like in The Dark Knight, he throws in moral and ethical dilemmas here to illustrate just how tough and messy decisions can be for our political leaders (in the war on terror). And, like in Batman Begins, Nolan underlines how sophisticated, scientific technology can be used as weapons. In the first film in the series, it was the dangers of microwave emitters. In the third, it’s the threat posed by ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs (Iran) and what happens should they fall into the wrong hands.

Arguably, Rises lacks a character with the charisma of the Joker, especially as he is Batman’s traditional nemesis. Nevertheless, the astuteness of the plot and the excellence of the cast make up for this absence. Christian Bale superbly reveals the psychological torment and the multifaceted nature of Bruce Wayne that makes all other comic-book based protagonists, such as those in Fantastic Four, The Avengers Assemble and Spiderman appear immature and superficial by comparison; Anne Hathaway looks as eye-catching in tightly-fitted latex as she plays; Michael Caine again gives a touching performance as Alfred, Bruce’s wise fatherly butler, as does Morgan Freeman as the humorous Lucius Fox, the head of Wayne Enterprise; and, lastly, Tom Hardy is terrifying as Bane.

Just as Nolan did with the villains Scarecrow, the Joker and Two-Face in the other movies, he’s turned Bane from a pantomime fool (as was seen in the unwatchable 1997 Batman & Robin) into a complex and sinister character, with a distressing backstory. It is not merely Bane’s brute strength and intelligence that’s scary, it’s also the glint of frightening fanaticism in his eyes which was probably last seen with Ayatollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Batman (Christian Bale), with renewed vigour, battling it out with Bane to save Gotham from destruction.

While the actors do their parts splendidly, so too do the special effects team and Hans Zimmer. The effects look so real, viewers have to remind themselves that CGI was used. Similarly, the score may not be as grand or uplifting as the one composed by Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings; nonetheless, the dark disposition of Rises entails that Zimmer’s gothic-style music is apt and augments the scenes exponentially.

Over-all, The Dark Knight Rises is an engrossing and special conclusion to an exceptional trilogy. Christopher Nolan has transformed the Batman story from a joke into a dark and very human tale that has relevance to the current era, making all other comic-book based movies seem light and casual in contrast. Once more, Nolan has used intelligence and a phenomenal cast to outdo himself in the same way that Peter Jackson did almost a decade ago. Heaven knows, it might be another ten years before we see a series of such brilliance again.

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Review – This Means War (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 3/5

Films like Fantastic Four I & II, Salt and Immortals take themselves preposterously seriously. Whilst watching such movies, one is entitled to think that the films would have been better if the actors had not taken their roles with such (laughable) sincerity. Thankfully, This Means War does not take itself remotely seriously. As a corollary, and for other reasons, the film is highly enjoyable and amusing.

Tuck (Tom Hardy) doing his bit to make sure that Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) chooses him as her man.

This Means War is about two CIA agents, FDR Foster (Chris Pine – Star Trek I & II, Unstoppable, Rise of the Guardians) and Tuck (Tom Hardy – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises). They are the best of friends, work opposite one another, and have fought alongside each other in dangerous operations for America’s secret services.

But then they discover that they’re both dating the same girl, Lauren (Reese Witherspoon – Cruel Intentions, Walk The Line, Mud), who cannot make up her mind on who she likes more. Neither FDR nor Tuck are willing to pass and let the other have Lauren, so they decide to compete against one another to see who will woo her, using all kinds of equipment and tricks to achieve their objective.

Meanwhile, a Russian agent, called Heinrich (Til Schweiger – Inglorious Basterds, New Year’s Eve, The Courier), is on his way to America. Heinrich wants revenge against FDR and Tuck for killing his brother in a mission in Hong Kong.

FDR (Chris Pine) on a date with Lauren to win over her heart and triumph over Tuck, his friend and colleague.

The plot for This Means War is entertaining and easy to follow. There might be fewer action scenes than one might think, and certainly in contrast to the Die Hard series, Black Hawk Down, and Iron Man I & II. But This Means War compensates for this with the hysterically absurd lengths that FDR and Tuck go to so as to win over Lauren’s heart.

Just like with The Expendables, Knight And Day and Mission: Impossible IV, none of the cast take themselves seriously in the slightest. The main difference between those films and This Means War is that the latter movie has much better dialogue; almost every other line is a joke, and the banter between the actors is extremely humorous.

In a similar vein, the acting is ideal for this type of film. It is most unlikely that any member of the cast will get prestigious award nominations come January-February 2013, but all of the actors revel in their disingenuous roles, from the cocky, smooth-talking and good-looking Chris Pine; to the confident, yet level-headed (English CIA agent) Tom Hardy; to the indecisive and cute (noticeably revamped) Reese Witherspoon; to Lauren’s know-it-all, contradictory-advice giving sister, Trish (Chelsea Handler – Cattle Call, Hop, Fun Size).

Trish (Chelsea Handler) advising Lauren, as ever, to make up her mind and choose one of the two men she is simultaneously dating.

Despite the heavy focus on the dialogue and the acting, director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation, Guilty) adopts conspicuously little by way of special effects. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many action films, like Wanted, Captain America and Season of the Witch could have done with less CGIs and better dialogue and acting. The only problem for McG is that the few instances of special effects in his movie are done quite poorly; especially, when compared to the quality of those in Mission: Impossible IV.

Over-all, This Means War is a light, amusing and entertaining film. It has a cast that acts well for this type of film; that has great chemistry on screen; and that are easy on the eye. Perhaps directors in the future will learn a lesson from This Means War and inform their casts not to take their roles overly seriously when it is not necessary. Otherwise, audiences are destined to watch more movies where the actors appear unconvincing and hollow, like in Fantastic Four I & II, Salt and Immortals.

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