Sunday, February 24, 2013

Today, This Blog Gives A Thumbs-Down To Eags As A Film Critic

Eags gives a thumbs-up to "Lincoln" as Best Picture tonight at the Oscar awards show. After viewing "Zero Dark Thirty" ("ZDT") twice, he gives that flick a thumbs-down. Eags criticizes "ZDT" because it doesn't hit the CIA (and The Dubster) hard enough for the mistakes and errors that created the decade-long lacunae in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. However, the film depicted "Maya" during those years at CIA headquarters and out in the field yammering at the higher-ups in the CIA who dragged their feet for 10 years. In the meeting that ultimately resulted in sending the SEALS to Abbottabad to kill bin Laden, the unnamed CIA director, a fictionalized Leon Panetta, asked who found the Abottabad site. "Maya," sitting against the wall said, "I'm the mother-f-er who found the place." This obscene self-reference characterized "Maya's" lack of popularity with her superiors. (The CIA agent who was the basis of "Maya" in the film was denied promotion by the Agency in late 2012. Mother-f-er, indeed.) To this blogger, the best scene in "ZDT" was the final scene when "Maya" is flown solo in a C-130 and a voice off-camera asks: "Where do you want to go." "Maya" silently weeps without response and we in this country should silently weep, too. If this is (fair & balanced) cinéastisme, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Why Oscar Will Snub "Zero Dark Thirty"
By Timothy Egan

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Sunday night is Oscar night, the 85th Academy Awards, high holy day for America’s most influential cultural export. “Zero Dark Thirty,” once thought to be a favorite for best picture, has been pummeled on the way to the finish line. It increasingly looks like “Argo,” a tidy drama about an imaginative rescue mission in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, will win.

Many are blaming the fall of “Zero” on a campaign by hand-wringers against the film’s torture scenes, which are brutal and — in the view of those with inside knowledge of the realm that Dick Cheney called “the dark side” — leave a false impression.

It would be naïve to rule out the hidden hands of the many competitors vying for the great statuette. The Oscar race is a big money affair, after all, not unlike a presidential campaign, with negative advertising, planted stories and double agents of cinematic spin.

But I suspect that the real problem for academy voters with Kathryn Bigelow’s film is not the torture sequences, but how utterly devoid of larger context the movie is. Should that matter? No, unless you make the claim, as the filmmakers have done, that your version of “history’s greatest manhunt” carries the imprimatur of journalistic accuracy — durable enough to become the art of record.

The duty of a dramatist is to tell a story, with conflict, peril and resolution. The duty of a historian is much the same, with the added responsibility of assembling a factual narrative. In trying to have it both ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” lost a large segment of thinking movie lovers.

I first saw the film with two highly opinionated women, and we had the same instant reaction: best picture. Maya, the composite character of the C.I.A. band of sisters that tracked Osama bin Laden, was mesmerizing. It was emotionally satisfying to see a mass killer in a body bag. The stomach-turning visual style was similar to Bigelow’s best-picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” which I loved.

That was six weeks ago. A second viewing with journalist friends who know the story well led to a more troubling take-away. It’s not just the torture and its inherent message that young, attractive Americans got the ultimate payoff in part by doing what German bad guys used to do in the movies.

It’s the omissions. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” several larger truths — the many intelligence mistakes, the loss of focus and diversion of resources, and the fallout from the folly of the Iraq war — are missing. This is a crucial point, because the film is likely to end up as the most popular version of the singular trauma in the first decade of the 21st century.

It’s obvious, now, why the C.I.A. was cooperative with the filmmakers: it couldn’t have asked for better product placement.

“I liked it, in balance,” said Michael Hayden, who was director of the C.I.A. in the latter half of George W. Bush’s second term. Hayden offered his endorsement at an extraordinary panel of top spooks, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute last month. With caveats for accuracy, these apologists for torture — oops, I mean “enhanced interrogation techniques” — all gave the film a thumbs up.

With “Zero Dark Thirty,” the C.I.A. has shown just how adept it is at spinning Hollywood. Dating from television’s “24,” which was torture porn for a Fox News nation, pop culture depictions of the terror war are mostly action without angst.

Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, said, “The film doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned.” So what? Bigelow can make the film she wants. But she set herself up for such criticism when she put “based on firsthand accounts of actual events” in the title sequence.

In Bigelow’s defense, she says the film is neutral, and that detractors are “confusing depiction with endorsement.” No doubt, some of the critical piling-on is hysterical and misinformed. Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, are right in asserting that they could not have presented the manhunt without showing torture, one-sided though it is. But shouldn’t the same logic apply to the huge missing elements of the story?

Any definitive account of the 10-year trail from 9/11’s grief to bin Laden’s end has to include some central events, from letting Al Qaeda’s leader slip away in Tora Bora to the invasion of Iraq over a made-up terror link. A quick reminder that President Bush all but gave up on bin Laden — “I truly am not that concerned about him,” he said less than a year after the murder of 3,000 of our citizens — would have plugged a vital hole in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

For my money, “Lincoln” is the best picture, because conveying brisk drama in the tedium of legislative maneuvers that ended slavery is no small thing. (I know, they hedged the truth with the Connecticut delegation vote on the amendment, a minor offense.) One film is about our greatest president at his finest hour. Another is about the greatest manhunt. As visual narratives that go to the core of American sense of self, they both deserve a telling that will survive the ages. Only one rose to the occasion. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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