Ben Adams, Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee and Matthew Wrather overthink Zero Dark Thirty, both the film and the controversy surrounding it.
And they invite you to the Overthinking It Fifth Birthday Party, Saturday, January 26, in New York City.[audio:http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/traffic.libsyn.com/mwrather/otip237.mp3]
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Hey! Could the inclusion of recognisable actors be a conscious choice to distance the audience from the film? I mean, are the actors used as tools for some emotional distancing, to remind the viewers that they are watching a representation? Sort of like the Wilhelm-scream used in destruction scenes in the Nic Cage classic The Knowing? Could it even be possible that there is intellectual distancing involved regarding US foreign policy? How does Zero-Dark-Thirty compare to Inglorious Basterds or Funny Games as commentaries on violence?
Does the film find the cold bloodedness of the U.S. or the trivialising of the lack of due process problematic?
“Could the inclusion of recognisable actors be a conscious choice to distance the audience from the film?”
Sure. Perhaps it’s notable that almost all the recognizeable actors in Zero Dark Thirty (barring Chastain) play Washington bureaucrats, and almost everybody in the field is more obscure. But then you get into the question of why I personally found those actors recognizeable — are Stannis Baratheon and Captain Jack Harkness really touchstone pop culture characters? Probably not. So it’s probably nothing.
I do think in Argo, John Goodman and Alan Arkin are special cases, since they literally represent Hollywood in the movie (with Affleck serving as the bridge between Hollywood and the CIA). That kind of metacasting is I think a touch more deliberate and sophisticated than the metacasting in Zero Dark Thirty.
“I mean, are the actors used as tools for some emotional distancing, to remind the viewers that they are watching a representation?”
I’d say in the first case it’s the opposite. These are both alienating stories of life experiences very foreign to most of the audience. The presence of familiar faces in the form of celebrity actors makes the audience feel closer and more emotionally connected to the story.
But it does remind you you’re watching a representation. I’d say the takeaway here is that “correspondent closeness to reality” and “correspondent emotional closeness” are not correlated — you can have very emotionally intimate, connective stories that are totally implausible and obviously metatheatrical / metacinematic to everyone involved.
So yeah, that kind of casting _can_ take people out of the story (like Brian Cranston in the Colin Ferrel _Total Recall_), but in the case of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, I don’t think it does.
“Could it even be possible that there is intellectual distancing involved regarding US foreign policy?”
Sure, of course there is — although I’m not sure which of its many levels you’re talking about. You rarely can afford to make important foreign policy and security decisions driven by gut or good feeling; you need to be mature about it and consider available and risks seriously (Which is why the “What is the risk of not acting?” line in Zero Dark Thirty landed so flatly for me — that’s something a bureaucrat says in anger, but almost anybody who works for a large organization with proper risk management knows it’s a silly question not worthy of a response.).
“How does Zero-Dark-Thirty compare to Inglorious Basterds or Funny Games as commentaries on violence?”
Am not familiar with Funny Games.
As for Inglorious Basters — Tarantino violence is fantasy violence that is put into movies to intensify the thrill and emotional investment in the relevant conflict. It reinforces strong, proactive value judgements about the people committing it — making their imperatives and needs more clear to the audience.
Think of the big Bear Jew scene, where he hits the first guy with a baseball bat. It’s all about righteous anger at the Holocaust and at anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic stereotype, as well as pride and excitement at certain American tribalist symbols (Fenway Park, etc.). There’s a dose of “dark mirror” in it, but it doesn’t truly indict these things. It’s essentially character development, where the Bear Jew becomes more of who he is because of the intensity of his violence.
The violence in Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about intensifying the character, it’s about intensifying the situation. There are lots of little moves with the camera and how the scene is crafted to try to hold judgement of the characters above their actions — like long lingering shots of Maya looking somewhere between horrified and murderous, and dipping to one side or the other — as if the filmmaker’s primary concern is to make sure we still like her when the scene is over, to give us some excuse to think of her as not responsible for what’s happening if that’s necessary for us to enjoy the movie.
It resonates as a bit sexist in Zero Dark Thirty — there’s a real Virgin/Whore dichotomy when it comes to Maya — sometimes she is made to look wide-eyed and innocent, and sometimes lustfully vengeful. She’s always the feminine counterpart to the man-meat slapping and being slapped around. It’s diminishing.
But more notably this feels to me like a movie that has a commercially/politically (commerce is politics by other means) motivated idea of what its audience is willing to accept in this narrative — and that it builds an improbably balanced lattice around its fragile bourgeoise viewership.
In other words, when Quentin Tarantino puts violence in a movie, it’s because he likes it, and his characters like it, and damn what the audience says they think because they like it too, despite themselves.
Zero Dark Thirty gives people an out by “otherizing” a lot of the violence — and the objects of violence — compartmentalizing it outside the main character-driven action of the movie, or making excuses for it, so people can glory in it if they are secretly fond of righteous white people torturing and sexually humiliating people of color — because it sure provides a lot of that — or see themselves as above it or separate from it if that’s something that squicks them out.
“Does the film find the cold bloodedness of the U.S. or the trivialising of the lack of due process problematic?”
As I said on the podcast, “The U.S.” is not a character in this movie. There is no sense of a unified national will, or even a notion that the Americans are vaguely on the same team. Maya is a loner with a ragtag multinational group of reluctant misfit allies.
I’d describe Zero Dark Thirty as “Counterstrike-Libertarian” — a fetishization of American foreign policy objectives and American military will and technology, combined with a contempt for the American people, the American government, the American way of life, and basically anything that keeps you from murdering the people you want to murder. And on top of that, there’s a deep sorrow and disappointment, along with cognitive dissonance, because somehow this America for which you have so much contempt and which you reject so thoroughly will not provide you with sufficient personal validation or reward your desire to do what you want and screw everyone else with the unquestioning fulfillment of your emotional needs.
It’s in that cultural subgenre that says “Keep the Manifest Destiny part, but the rest of America can go screw itself.”
But yeah, the movie doesn’t say America trivializes due process. If anything it says America is extremely committed to due process, and this fondness for due process is one of its biggest problems.
To add, it’s notable that whenever the American characters in Pakistan talk about what is going on back home, they always speak metonymically about “Washington.” “Washington” wants this, “Washington” wants that, etc.
The 9/11 victims are rarely if ever referred to as “Americans” — they are referred to as “your citizens” or “innocent people.”
In references to terrorist attacks in the United States, the country is referred to as “the homeland.”
There’s a scene where Maya looks at a variant of the Great Seal of the United States behind a press conference podium — only to notice that at the bottom it says “Islamabad.”
So, “America” is conspicuous in this movie by its absence.
But remember, this is not a documentary. It’s a heavily fictionalized account about a true event in that something happened. It’s made to pander to American sensibilities without anything onscreen ruffling egos or creating actionable activities in the real world.
They want you to come out thinking that you got good value for your entertainment dollar and that you’ll tell your friends. Nothing more.
Never tell an Overthinker than there’s nothing more. There’s always more :-)
Isn’t that kind of the point though? The movie shows a CIA which has mostly become a world and law unto itself. America is conspicuous by its absence and it seems like the film is asking us to consider that.
“You rarely can afford to make important foreign policy and security decisions driven by gut or good feeling”
Isn’t that also the point? That a lot of these policies are driven by lust for revenge or self-righteous myopia rather than any practical policy considerations. Both Mark Strong’s argument to Stannis about risk and Maya’s argument to the station chief in the hallway are terrible arguments. The film doesn’t clearly show that they’re right. The station chief even gets the last word in that exchange when he says, “You’re out of your mind.” I think it’s fairly clear that we’re being asked to consider whether she’s really out of her mind. The film also underlines her monomania in other ways (islamabad marriott scene, cafeteria scene).
Also, when she’s writing the days on Strong’s window, Strong and the other dude make a comment about how monomaniacal she is. She is frustrated by the (very thin) due process of the agency, but ultimately she gets what she wants. And the movie doesn’t show this process as a problem per se, just a problem for her because she’s impatient. But there are no terrorist attacks depicted in the interim between the discovery of the compound and the final mission. That would clearly have been illustrating a problem with the process. The process isn’t represented as costly for anyone but her.
There’s also the part where she says she was spared to finish the job, and again when she tells Andy Dwyer that DEVGRU is going to kill Osama for her. It’s not hard to read her as a nearly unhinged egomaniacal zealot in those scenes.
Iotw, I don’t think it’s at all clear that the overall film is onside with the protagonist. All of the usual ways audiences are corralled into empathy and identification are undermined (barrowman and gandolfini’s elevator conversation, the horseshoe scene, for example).
Thank you. I’ll probably never take the time to see this, but I appreciate hearing it discussed more for that.
The discovery of the “uncanny valley of truthiness” finally gives substance to an experience I couldn’t quite define before.
I’m not letting go of the idea of catchy one-liners for Osama and the Navy SEAL who puts him down.
Can we brainstorm some possibilities? Basically, Zero Dark Thirty if written by Shane Black?
OSAMA: Infidel scum! I took down your towers! Remember that? Remember that day?
NAVY SEAL: Yeah? Take down this tower, bitch.
(Cut to barrel of NAVY SEAL’s rifle. NAVY SEAL shoots OSAMA. OSAMA staggers backwards, reeling from the gunshot.)
NAVY SEAL: That’s for New York.
(NAVY SEAL shoots OSAMA again.)
NAVY SEAL: That’s for the Pentagon
(NAVY SEAL shoots OSAMA again. He is near death but still alive.)
NAVY SEAL: That’s for Pennsylvania.
(NAVY SEAL shoots OSAMA again. He is finally dead.)
NAVY SEAL: That’s for me.
Would you like me to circulate that writing sample? We could probably get you an agent out here in LA.
Yes, please. Terminator 5 isn’t going to write itself, after all.
That’s all it takes to get an agent!? Man, I’ve been going about this all wrong.
We all know there is only one perfect line for the situation:
(Austrian accent): “Chill out.”
(INTERIOR: KATHRYN BIGELOW’S office. She looks exacerbated as ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is vigorously pitching a version of “Zero Dark Thirty” in which he stars.)
ARNOLD: I read ze script, but I think it’s terrible. Who wrote zis garbage? Vhere are ze one-liners? Ze hero should have a great line when he kills Osama.
(KATHRYN gives ARNOLD the kind of look that Lorne Michaels gives to Bill Hader and Andy Samberg when they pitch “Laser Cats” to him.)
ARNOLD: And I vould play ze hero, of course. Aging SEAL comes out of retirement for zis special mission. It’s perfect!
(KATHRYN starts to shrink underneath her desk.)
ARNOLD: We need ze perfect one-liner for the climax. Vhat about, “Do you know how to say ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ in Arabic? No? I don’t either. BAM!”
Or maybe, “Special delivery from ze US Postal Service. BAM! Sign please.”
No, wait. I got it: “Didn’t you see any of my movies? I told you I’d be back. BAM!” Of course! I love it vhen I say that in my movies. And vhen I’m all self-aware and breaking ze fourth wall. Hey, did you see me in Zhe Expendables 2?
(KATHRYN is curled up in the fetal position in a corner of her office.)
Being from Pennsylvania I have a slight correction to propose:
NAVY SEAL: That’s for Pennsylvania.
OSAMA: WTF is a Pennsylvania?
(NAVY SEAL shoots OSAMA again. He is finally dead.)
NAVY SEAL: That’s for me!
(NAVY SEAL swaggers off as closing music begins… “Well in West Philadelphia I was born and raised”)
Bad Boys 3 closing credits roll)
On a semi-serious note hardly anyone outside the North East has a concept of Pennsylvania other than as a suburb of Philadelphia.
Did…did…did you just “Bel-Air”* this comments thread?
I tip my hat to you, sir.
*More information on Bel-Airing: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/bel-air-fresh-prince
Ugh, I had a whole page written and the damn browser crashed.
Okay, in response to violence in pop culture, specifically video games, a few video game makers wrote letters to Vice President Biden in response to the Newtown, CT, shootings, as accusations have been flung at various pop culture-producing entities since it happened (video game companies being one category, of course). Worth the read, imo:
I think the events of 9/11 made the conversation about torture change spheres, from the war and intelligence rooms to the living rooms of the public. Because no, it’s not like we were never torturing. And in fact, that “sense of ease” or however it was put (sorry, like I said, browser crashed) between the Cold War and 9/11 was filled with shifts in policy that created easier avenues for torture through unofficial-official means. For example, extraordinary rendition- that started in the nineties (used frequently by the intelligence agencies during the Clinton era). But I guess apart from scary throwback movies and stuff, scenes in movies that were portraying things set in the past (or characters that do things oldschool), it didn’t really show up in film, and it wasn’t very common in the news. As I remember, torture wasn’t really a topic of discussion. This isn’t to say it’s become light conversation over family dinner, no, but how many people even knew what extraordinary rendition was before 9/11, even though the policy had been in place for almost a decade? Anyway, all this is to say, the 9/11 attacks provided a rallying cry for people that were already in the mood for torture as a means of interrogation. It was a rallying cry and excuse for a lot of things. And I’ll stop myself from going on an MIC rant.
John Barrowman is on Arrow, the CW show about the Green Arrow. I find him highly distracting there, and the show is already way over-the-top campy.
More on the video game+violence stuff:
Also, another Doctor Who actor on Arrow:
For some reason, I don’t think her guesting will be nearly as distracting as Barrowman’s. But I guess we’ll see.
Just to set the record straight, MLK Day is the fake Valentine’s Day/NYE-style movie, and Leap Day is an actual fake holiday within the 30 Rock universe (that has a movie as well, Leap Dave Williams, in the vein of Liar Liar).
I think you guys have it right with the uncanny valley of truth concept. Part of the marketing for the movie that I noticed was that they claimed it was almost a journalistic level of accuracy. In trying to live up to that, I would say that Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award-winning director, has a larger responsibility because the audience goes in expecting more accuracy. This historical event is especially tricky because so few of the details are really known – I don’t think the public relates to this story in the same way that, say, we relate to World War II.
This podcast was certainly a unique OverthinkingIt experience. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Fenzel so down on a movie before. I don’t mind hearing viewpoints that are contrary to my own, but the tension created by his clear dislike of nearly every aspect of the film seemed out of place on what is usually a comedic podcast.
If you perhaps wondered if I was upset about something unrelated, you’d be correct. I don’t really want to talk about it at the moment, but I’m looking to put something up about it on the site next week.
Well hey, by your definition, doesn’t LeighH’s comment mean you’re doing something right? ;)