Category Archives: Film

Why Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is a Terrible Idea

Other than maybe trailer reviews, there’s no lower form of film criticism than pre-judging movies based on their premises. So forgive me for now indulging in that low enterprise for what I think is a fairly extreme case of a misbegotten enterprise.

From what I understand, Kathryn Bigelow has been developing a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden since well before his actual capture and subsequent execution. Had she completed the film at some point before those events, it’s easy to imagine Zero Dark Thirty (or whatever the movie would have been called) as a Hurt Locker-esque exercise in politically ambivalent military drama, a meticulous detailing of the hunt for an elusive, never-seen ghost. But that prospect is long gone. Now, Zero Dark Thirty will tell the story of how special forces were finally able to nab Public Enemy No. 1, with Bigelow’s typically thorough sense of verisimilitude (already showcased in Hurt) aided by unprecedented levels of access to previously confidential materials.

I have no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will avoid chest-thumping and flag-waving in much the same way that Hurt stuck doggedly to a grunt’s-eye-view of the Iraq War. But no measure of depoliticization can alter the basic facts of the context of Zero Dark Thirty‘s release. Though the film itself doesn’t go wide until two days after the 2012 US presidential election, its mere existence – as well as its sure-to-be extensive ad campaign, will serve as a constant reminder of Obama’s unambiguous military triumph, the one victory he can claim that Republicans are more or less completely defenseless against.

That alone is not the issue. What’s troubling about the prospect of a bin Laden-themed thriller released in the heat of an election year is that it will serve to obfuscate what should be he genuine narrative of Obama’s military strategy: his use of unmanned drones to seek out and kill targets around the world, even if those targets happen to be American citizens. In a great piece that uses excerpts from Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture, The Nation‘s Steve Coll argues that the book’s title phrase is actually a misnomer, given

…the evidence in Klaidman’s narrative suggesting that the Obama Administration leans toward killing terrorism suspects because it does not believe it has a politically attractive way to put them on trial. Federal criminal trials of terrorist suspects draw howls of protest from many Republicans, even though the George W. Bush Administration successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile terrorists in federal court. Military commissions, the Obama Administration’s reluctantly endorsed best-of-the-bad alternative to federal trials, are unpopular with civil-rights activists and European allies, for good reason, because of their relatively weak protections for defendants.

That Obama actually has a worse record than Bush on dealing with terror suspects is bad enough. That a natural filmmaker like Bigelow has been aided by the Obama administration in helping to make her government appear tough – but not illegally or unethically so – on known terrorists and enemies of the state is doubly unfortunate. I’d love nothing more than to be wrong; I’d love for Zero Dark Thirty to contain cutting insights into the nature of military decision-making and the undermining of international human rights. But, if anything, Bigelow’s filmography suggests she’ll tell the story as “straight” as possible, and in doing so, I fear she’s been made an unwitting, or maybe even willing, puppet of an administration whose methods of dealing with international terrorism are increasingly unsound, to put it mildly.

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Supporting Characters: The 178-minute cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’


Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you
will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

In the fall of 2005, writer-director/playwright Kenneth Lonergan shot his second feature, Margaret, a process that took a little less than two months. The cast included Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Kieran Culkin, and Jean Reno, and was produced by the high-powered duo of Scott Rudin and Sydney Pollack (the latter of whom wouldn’t live to see the film released). Lonergan’s previous film, the unusually sharp family-dynamics indie You Can Count on Me, won him accolades and seemed to announce him as one of the more promising upstart filmmakers of the new decade. The film must have seemed perfectly positioned at the time for a sophomore breakthrough, given its cast and pedigree, as well as the vacuum it might have filled as the definitive post-9/11 NYC chronicle.

That wasn’t to be. Margaret spent the next six years suffering a combination of Lonergan’s inability to shape the material into a satisfactory final cut and protracted legal disputes with Fox Searchlight and Camelot Pictures, and when the film did finally (if barely) reach theaters in the fall of 2011, it was in a 150-minute cut that may have compromised Lonergan’s original vision. With the release of the 178-minute “extended cut” of the film, which Lonergan has insisted is still not necessarily the definitive one he’d envisioned, it becomes even clearer that Margaret may be the best American film of the last several years – even if it was intended for release considerably sooner.

On the surface, Margaret would seem to be another iteration of the “everyone is connected” ethos espoused by hacks like Alejandro González Iñárritu: a precocious, difficult teenage girl, Lisa (Paquin), tries to get the attention of a bus driver (Ruffalo) so she can inquire about his cowboy hat, and in the process, a bystander, Monica (Janney), is fatally injured. After lying on her initial statement to the police, Lisa becomes fixated on the incident, ultimately becoming the impetus for legal proceedings that also effect the deceased’s best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin, 40 years on from The Heartbreak Kid), the driver, and the woman’s money-grubbing relatives. That narrative thread alone would serve as plenty of grist for one film, but Lonergan’s intentions are considerably broader.

We also follow her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). a stage actress. whose latest role as the lead in a workplace farce called Controversy has finally positioned her for serious accolades, as well as the attention of a wealthy Colombian fan/suitor, Ramon (Jean Reno). And then there’s the matter of Lisa’s lovelife, complete with the Nice Guy (John Gallagher Jr.), the Creep (Culkin), and the Teacher (Damon).

And then there’s New York itself. Margaret is less democratic than Iñárritu’s films in terms of its division of attention – this is firmly Paquin’s and, to a lesser extent, Smith-Cameron’s film – but Lonergan frequently takes time between (and sometimes during) important story beats for his camera and/or his sound mix to drift and absorb nearby conversations, movements, events. Planes fly overhead, and we follow their trajectories. Multiple dialogues can be perceived in the midst of a crowded cafe. Joan claims to admire the view from Ramon’s balcony, at which point Lonergan’s camera follows suit, panning slowly along the skyline. This is a “network narrative” in the manner we experience in our own lives, not as some screenwriter’s contrived delusion of how lives intersect and collide.

Margaret is impossible to synopsize because it’s about so much. It’s a portrait of post-9/11 New York, sure. And it’s a study of guilt and complicity, certainly. But it’s also an examination of adolescence as a whole, the process by which we grow into ourselves, which as presented in the film is mostly made up of being wrong – usually by definition. Lisa is constantly misusing words, for instance, claiming that pre-emptively shouting down another classmate isn’t “censorship” because “this class is not the government.” Later, she accuses Emily of being “strident,” without seeming to know what it means. In another scene, one of Lisa’s classmates stubbornly insists on misreading Shakespeare. Lisa is righteously indignant for much of the film, and she’s so frequently erroneous that it makes the few occasions where her misgivings are legitimate all the more affecting.

It’s also about art – its consumption, its creation, its transformative power, its place in a seemingly chaotic universe. Ramon falls in love with Joan almost purely through watching her perform, not knowing that ultimately they share almost no real-life characteristics. The scene in which Broderick reads the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem (quoted above) would seem to spell out the film’s themes, but it’s not nearly so simple. The Margaret of the poem could be interpreted as Lisa, the child who grows older and sees sights colder, but it could just as easily be describing Joan, Emily, or Monica. At the film’s end, Lisa and Joan finally go to the opera together – a form that Lisa previously derided – and share a tearful reconciliation while the performers sing of love. The fact that this is the opening of Act 3 of The Tales of Hoffmann, which concerns the title figure being taken in by a courtesan whose love is a ruse, doesn’t lessen the song’s effect on Lisa and Margaret; there’s something pure in their philistinism. (If they knew a little more about the work, though, they might come to realize that Margaret has a little in common with Stella, the multifaceted bane of Hoffmann’s existence.)

The extended cut of Margaret might not be the Platonic ideal of the film according to Lonergan, but it seems clear now that no single cut will ever completely satisfy him. What matters is that this one feels like a fuller, richer movie. What used to feel like tangents now feel better-integrated into the whole. The more extensive deployment of the “drifting” sound and vision across and over the city helps to reinforce the massive scope. The new cut makes one feel like somewhere there’s a neverending cut of the movie that wilfully generates new avenues to explore and new viewpoints to consider, expanding ever outward. 178 minutes will have to do for now.

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