Something akin to an art house exploitation film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a pressure cooker about the horror of institutional racism, but it’s also a limited drama that lacks any sense of catharsis for an audience. Set among a hellish series of days in 1967, the film follows the events at the Algiers Motel, where Detroit police officers killed three innocent black men in their pursuit of what they believed to be a sniper. An all-white jury then acquitted the officers. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays the lead racist cop and instigator, the man who tries using every effort to get a confession. His bad decisions lead to further bad decisions and miscommunication and then cold-blooded murder. It takes a solid 45 minutes to establish the various supporting characters, the fragile tinderbox that is Detroit during a series of riots, and getting everyone to the fateful motel. Afterwards, it’s like a real-time thriller that’s extremely harrowing to watch. It’s very intense and very well made by Bigelow and her go-to screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty). Like Get Out, it turns the day-to-day black American experience into a grueling horror film. I was squirming in my seat and felt nauseated throughout much of the movie. I wanted to scream at the screen and tell people to stop or run away. However, it’s a movie with a lower ceiling, whose chief goal is to provoke primal outrage, which it easily achieves, but it feels like there’s little else on the artistic agenda. The characterization can be fairly one-note, especially with the racist cops who stew over white women hanging around virile black males. It’s victims and victimizers and we get precious little else. Your blood will boil, as it should, but will you remember the characters and their lives, their personalities, or mostly the cruel injustices they endured? It’s an intense, arty, exploitation film, and I can perfectly understand if certain audience members have no desire to ever watch this movie. It’s not so much escapism as a scorching reminder about how far race relations have come and have yet to go in this country. Detroit is a movie with plenty of merits but I think it’s the least of the three major Bigelow-Boal collaborations.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.
We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.
You can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.
The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.
The proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.
Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.
2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).
The supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.
Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Hurt Locker is an action movie on a very human scale. Sure there is a time and place for your Michael Bay-esque action vehicles, the type that scorch square miles and leave recognizable world cities in ruins. However, those kinds of action movies are never the kind where storytelling ever enters the fray beyond a meager question of how to get from Point/Explosion A to Point/Explosion B. In fact, Bay openly admits to planning the story of Transformers 2 by working on various action sequences during the 2007 writer’s strike and then tasking screenwriters to connect the dots. The Hurt Locker exists in a frighteningly believable world. This isn’t a movie about explosions but about the extinguishing of explosions. It follows the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, tasked with detecting and detonating bombs and other improvised incendiary explosives (IED) in the field of combat. You will not be restless for loud “booms” while watching The Hurt Locker. In fact, you will be on pins and needles hoping that you never hear another loud “boom.”
Delta Company are the men responsible for protecting the other soldiers by disposing of bombs. The new team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) has defused over 800 bombs during his tour of duty. He knows he’s the best and he’s addicted to the thrill of being so close to death. He will make occasionally reckless decisions putting himself, but not his fellow company men, at higher risk. This does not sit well with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book type that doesn’t appreciate his officer chasing a thrill. The other EOD unit member, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is a man more accustomed to taking orders than giving them, and his indecision may have actually cost the life of the former head of the EOD. Both Sanborn and Eldridge worry that their new team member is going to get them all killed.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break) has been directing male-centered action flicks for over two decades; it’s been seven years since her last feature, the regrettable Harrison Ford submarine flick, K-19: The Widowmaker. The Hurt Locker is her finest work to date by far. Her action sequences are visceral and downright agonizing to sit through. She is masterful at setting up the geography of the set piece, ratcheting up the suspense, adding organic obstacles and complications, and then makes sure with her camera and editing that an audience knows exactly what’s happening to whom for every minute that ticks off the clock. Bigelow takes her time to establish the particulars of her locations and sequences, allowing the audience to, surprise, understand what is happening and better engage in the movie. Bigelow chose to shoot the movie in Jordan, the neighboring country to Iraq, and the locations and actual refugee extras add an unvarnished sense of realism. The movie goes without music during much of the action, which makes it all the more uneasy. There isn’t any over eager composer telling you how you should feel, no direction that now things will get even more hairy. You will feel every second of danger, and Bigelow crams in a whole lot of danger. Things can go wrong very, very quickly.
There’s nothing to action cinema quite like the bomb that’s only a few tick-tocks away from doing its dirty work. Do you cut the yellow wire or the green wire? Never cut the red wire. The bombs found in Iraq are a stark range of death. There’s the crude incendiary device just wrapped up in garbage, but then there’s also the fiendishly clever devices with multiple charges and there are grotesque devices as well. At perhaps the film’s most guttural and shocking moment, Staff Sgt. William James finds the corpse of an innocent stuffed with explosives. The easiest thing would be to simply detonate the bomb, but that would also desecrate the body of someone we have come to know. Watching James snip open the crude stitching and dig inside the chest cavity, if we didn’t know then we know now, Bigelow has made sure that The Hurt Locker is the most emotionally resonating contemporary war film in memory.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, an Iraq War journalist, create a vivid sense of dread, antipathy, and most of all, paranoia. Is that a kite flying in the air or is that a signal? Is that a nondescript observer with a cell phone or is that a terrorist with a remote detonator? Is that child being friendly or collecting intelligence? Your mind will race through all these possibilities because Bigelow teases out her action sequences to an unbearably taut level. The audience cares about these soldiers and wants to see them make it back home (we’re informed how many days Delta Company has left on their tour throughout the film), which Bigelow uses to her advantage at every turn. What happens matters. My nerves were frayed during several sequences, including one where the soldiers are pinned down by distant enemy gunfire. The moment turns into a duel and a chess game, as each side tries to adjust their gaze in the searing heat and measure their long-range shot before the other side beats them to it. Then the sequence turns into a waiting game. This is the kind of movie that keeps you poised on the edge of your seat fearful that at any moment something disastrous will suddenly happen. Every time Staff Sgt. William James went back out to defuse another bomb, my sense of dread intensified. I began to doubt everything that I would ordinarily take for granted in other movies.
While being a top-notch action movie, Boal (In the Valley of Elah) has also crafted a great character study. In between the bomb episodes we learn more about these men, which makes it all the more hard to see them then head out to defuse another explosive. The film opens on a quote equating war as a drug, and we explore this notion through the character of Staff Sgt. William James and the weight his unique duty bears. It takes a special person to volunteer for defusing roadside bombs. The defuser must be extremely intelligent, be extremely cool under pressure, and be able to work in a giant suit that makes them look like a chubby astronaut, while enduring debilitating desert temperatures of 110 degrees. It sounds like a suicide mission. James is an adrenaline junkie and war is his drug. He exudes a Zen-like calm in the heat of the moment and this is now the only life for him. Shopping for cereal back home has lost its meaning. Being a husband has lost its meaning. His life now has one purpose. Renner (28 Weeks Later, North Country) gives a stirring performance laced with cavalier confidence and resignation. Mackie (Eagle Eye, We Are Marshall) is also another standout in the pared down cast. When he laments about the dishonor of having no one to remember you in death, you feel the man’s existential sorrow.
Ignore the political cranks that decry The Hurt Locker as another partisan anti-war film from Hollywood. The American public has been mostly indifferent to any contemporary movie that aims to tackle our current military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but The Hurt Locker eschews the politics of war to focus on the realities and dangers of its characters. These guys are more concerned with surviving the next bomb than the politics of why they’re in the Middle East. The public has voted with their wallets and does not want to see the reality of war onscreen, or at least the Hollywood version of war reality, but I pray that those same people give The Hurt Locker a fighting chance. There is no preaching to be found here. The Hurt Locker could just have easily taken place during other wars, though the current Iraq War allows for added cultural dissonance (Is the central goal of bomb-defusing a metaphor for our conflict in the region?). This is a film that transcends politics and genre.
The Hurt Locker is more than an action movie, more than a war movie, more than a psychological study; this is an outstanding movie. This movie is a drug to the adrenaline senses and I need another hit. This is one of the finest films of the year and as it expands across the nation, I highly encourage everyone to seek out The Hurt Locker.
Nate’s Grade: A