January 10th, 2013. Political Context in Action Thrillers. Movies reviewed: Zero Dark Thirty, A Darker Truth
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Many people complain that action movies are vapid, pointless pablum, just meaningless flashes and a driving score to keep people distracted. Maybe so. But does adding a political context make an action movie better? This week I’m looking at two movies – both basically action thrillers – that are told within a political context. One’s a celebration of a CIA agent’s role in the assassination Osama Bin Laden, the other’s about a Canadian multinational messing things up in South America.
Dir: Catherine Bigelow
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an up-and-coming CIA agent, with a delicate personality and whispey red hair blowing in the wind. She finds herself in a secret dark site. It’s post- 9/11 and the CIA is trying to find out where the next terrorist attack is going to be, and how they can stop it. She turns to the ruthless Dan (Jason Clarke) as her mentor. He’s a laid-back kinda guy with a scruffy beard who likes to say things like “It’s cool bro… everyone breaks eventually” to the people he’s torturing. He raises cute little monkeys in a cage, right beside the suspects, also kept in zoo-like cages. So she’s soon happily stringing up people, stripping them naked, putting black hoods on them and waterboarding the prisoners, just like the rest of the agents. Pretty grim stuff.
But she’s doing it to save America. As one character says in a dramatic speech: Al Qaeda attacked us from the air, from the land and by sea. We must stop them! And when she personally witnesses a bombing that kills her colleague she makes it her lifelong goal to kill that terrorist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. (And it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s killed in a Navy SEAL raid on Pakistan in May, 2011.)
Zero Dark Thirty is a very long movie that traces the CIA’s violent, twisted and bumpy path toward getting Bin Laden. Gradually the public and the government seem to lose their original goal of catching the culprit of 9/11, but it’s Maya’s dogged pursuit that gets him in the end.
I thought it was a too-long, and not all that interesting, action movie telling a story we already know, completely from the point of view of a CIA agent. It’s not one-sided – it is unsparing in its portrayal of torture – but it seems to make it all just seem like an episode of the TV show “24”, where there’s always a ticking time bomb or a planned terrorist attack ready to happen. If they can get the bad guys to talk – however they do it – any method is OK. The thing is, in real life torture is not OK, and it doesn’t work. Among other things, it talks about the 3000 innocent people killed on 9/11 – a terrible tragedy — but doesn’t seem to mention any of the 100,000s of innocent people, completely unrelated to that event, who were killed by the US and its allies in retaliation. (It does casually mention drones in Afghanistan, but just in passing.) It also portrays terrorism as a constant, never-ending threat, killing people all over the world. And its portrayal of Muslims and especially Arabs was especially simplistic.
(One of the most annoying scenes in the movie looks like it was written by someone who had never met a Muslim. It involves a group of women in black robes and hijab, their faces veiled with niqab. And what happens? Well, in this movie, any woman who covers her face must be up to something devious or sneaky; naturally, they end up being male assassins disguised as women who pull out weapons and mow someone down… Really?)
As a movie, the acting (especially Chastain, Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as another CIA agent) is very good, and the storyline is initially compelling, though its subject matter is extremely disturbing.
But it gets boring in the second half — just people walking through the steps taken to “get” bin Laden. Fun if you’re into Navy Seal recruitment videos, but boring to everyone else. I also thought its portrayal of good guys and bad guys – Us vs Them – overly selective. Every suspect turns out to be a terrorist, who can’t be trusted and is there just to kill us. Not just that, but we should make them hurt bad, not just because it’ll save lives, but because they did bad things to us and our friends and should pay for it. And that torture works.
Zero Dark Thirty is not a good movie.
Another action thriller is
Dir: Damian Lee
Morgan (Deborah Kara Unger) is a ribbon-cutter, a Toronto heiress at a multinational resource corporation, who cuts ribbons and launches benevolent charities in the company’s name. But when she has an alarming run-in with an Equadorian on the lam her eyes are opened. She decides to investigate her company’s actions in South America where they may be responsible for poisoning water and killing locals, all for the sake of the bottom line. So she hires local talk show host Jack Begosian who has long rallied against what he calls the Great Transformation: corporate commoditization of necessities like water, land and air. Jack’s radio call-in show is called The Truth, but he’s pretty secretive about his own truth – he may have been a CIA agent in his past.
So Jack has to go to Equador, uncover the truth, and bring the Campesino revolutionary Francisco Francis (Forest Whitaker) to safety in Toronto. Francisco and his wife Mia (Eva Longoria) are the only ones speaking up for the endangered locals. But it’s not so easy.
A sniper-assassin named Tor (Kevin Durand) has been hired by the Canadian company to kill Jack and everyone else involved in order to protect their profits and image. Who will live and who will die? Who can be trusted? And will the truth ever be released?
A Dark Truth is another interesting-sounding action thriller that loses some of its steam due to an overly complicated plot. Parts are exciting and dramatic, with a good shoot-out and some interesting plot turns. But some parts are glacial in their painful slowness, like Jack’s scenes with his family wife and son. There are also far too many subplots to care about. The story keeps jumping back and forth across continents, with way too many flashbacks and tons of confusing images (like the heiress lying in a bathtub fully dressed – what does this mean and why do they keep showing it?) The acting is mixed. Durand, Garcia, Unger and Devon Bostick as the young Equadorian are all good, while the usually great Forest Whitaker seems bafflingly flat and uninteresting.
It’s nice to have Toronto playing itself for once, and important topics — like eco-revolutionaries and international intrigue – are rare to see on the big screen, but A Dark Truth is just so-so as an action thriller.
Zero Dark Thirty and A Dark Truth, both open today. Check your local listings. Also opening is Michael Haneke’s fantastic Amour, one of my top ten movies of the year.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .