Category Archives: Historical

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

Titanic (1997)

Nostalgia is a tricky bastard. While it frames the past gracefully, it also alters perception in ways inescapable to the sentimental, a partiality that only deepens with time. At my brother Kevin’s insistence, my siblings and I watched Titanic on its centennial, fifteen years after I first saw it in theater. It was their first time; I was their age in 1997. I loved Titanic then, and I love it now. Sepia-filtered memory makes distance impossible.

Everyone knows the story. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a beautiful, intelligent girl suffocated by the trivialities of high society. Aboard Titanic with her controlling mother and tyrannical fiancé Cal (Billy Zane), she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class passenger whose carefree outlook shows her the possibility of a different life. But on the fourth night of its maiden voyage, Titanic sinks into the freezing Atlantic, carrying with it the lives and dreams of over 1,500 people—to be remembered only as one of the greatest disasters in history.

James Cameron has yet to impress me with recent works, but he does hit all the right notes in Titanic. Although the movie stretches for three hours, the story moves onward at an ideal pace, never unsatisfying and never dull. With hardly any superfluous scene, Titanic embodies the epitome of a well-told story and a well-rendered movie (perhaps at the expense of being too conventional, too whole). True, the rich-girl-poor-boy narrative is downright cliché, and the couple’s whirlwind romance does require some leap of belief, but both leads play their parts so convincingly that it’s not hard for viewers to make that emotional jump. Many memorable scenes (by now iconic) also help in establishing character, although they do nothing to humanize Cal, whose caricature treatment inspires the same hatred as any old-fashioned villain.

I don’t think I have ever not cried while watching this movie. No matter how many times I see it, the feeling of loss never fades. In combining personal drama with history, Titanic conveys an overwhelming sense of both private and public tragedy. We mourn for Jack and Rose, but we know that their story is only a mirror of all those that went down with the ship, a sorrow augmented by its sheer preventability. For all its melodrama, Titanic expresses poignant insights on the transience of things and the permanence of memory. When Celine Dion starts crooning, who can help but cry?

‘Titanic was called the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was.’

‘Do you trust me?’ ‘I trust you.’

‘Three years, I’ve thought of nothing except Titanic; but I never got it. I never let it in.’

Hugo (2011)

Set in 1930s Paris, Hugo centers on its title character, a clockmaker’s son who lives within the walls of a railway station. Orphaned and abandoned, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) steals food to survive and filches mechanical parts to complete his father’s project, the restoration of a broken automaton. When toy merchant Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) catches him red-handed and takes a valuable notebook from him, a desperate Hugo turns to the man’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), for help. Together, they repair the automaton and discover its link to Georges’ secret past, opening up an adventure much bigger than the one they first imagined.

While Hugo generally sustains its fantastic veneer, ill-considered sequences at times break the illusion—the most jarring being a painfully blatant statement of theme. But despite such identifiable blunders, the movie leads you inside worlds far from familiar: gigantic clocks forming intricate mechanical lacework, books spiraling toward the ceiling, tiny toys lining a shop from end to end. In Hugo, your world is scaled down to one city, one train station—where your biggest enemy is the inspector, and the orphanage your worst nightmare. Visually, all this is rendered in spectacular 3D. The opening scenes take your breath away: the onrush of steam in your face, the crowd parting to let you pass—almost, almost like you’re really there. In a word: captivating.

Magnified to gorgeous proportions, Georges’ masterpieces compel the viewer to consider and appreciate the many layers at work in Scorsese’s fim. Although marketed as a heartwarming family drama, the movie’s principal accomplishments lie elsewhere. As a children’s movie, Hugo may fail to mesmerize very young audiences, but does wonders in capturing the hearts and minds of more mature viewers. Whatever the dissenting few may say, I consider this film a success in the seamless unification of its elements: an orphan searching for his father’s presence, an artist struggling to reconcile with a bitter past, and—between them—a mysterious, broken automaton carrying a crucial message. Apart from Butterfield’s inconsistent performance and some awkward exchanges between the two children, I have no real complaints. My eyes blurred over several times while watching this film—at times out of sadness, more often out of sheer awe. I am grateful to Maki for dragging me to its last screening in Metro Manila. Hugo in 3D is definitely something I would not have wanted to miss.

‘We could get into trouble.’ ‘That’s how you know it’s an adventure.’

‘Why should I believe you?’ ‘Because…because it’s true!’

‘If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, look around. This is where they’re made.’

October Sky (1999)

Obsessions can be dangerous things. We know how they can drive people to do the most shocking deeds. Serial murderers, psychopaths, hoarders—we’ve seen them all, at least on television. But obsessions also tread on the realm of possibility, by allowing ordinary people to dream the unthinkable. Crazy ones, we call them. “Rocket Boys,” a bunch of them were called in a small coal mining town in West Virginia, 1957.

“What do you want to know about rockets?” Quentin asks Homer. “Everything,” he says. After seeing Sputnik 1 cross the skies, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) aspires to one day reach outer space. Encouraged by his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), he and his friends fashion crude rockets with the hope of entering the national science fair and winning college scholarships. But rocket-making proves to be a difficult venture, and Homer faces failure after failure, attracting the ire of his perennially disapproving father (Chris Cooper).

Based on Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, October Sky chronicles the beginning of a lifelong adventure. A biographical film, it joins the ranks of inspiring, based-on-real-life movies like A Beautiful Mind, complete with black-and-white title cards detailing what happened afterwards. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, however, October Sky follows a more familiar formula for conflict: an ambitious youth struggling against his critical father. But that concerns the material itself. What is interesting about this movie is that, both in the film and in Homer Hickam’s life, there is a clear opposition between the boy’s desire to reach the sky and the town’s insistence that his life be spent underground, in the mines. The desire to escape is palpable, that much is clear, but that the opposition be this striking is in itself worth wondering at.

When the Rocket Boys succeed in launching their first rocket, everyone rejoices. Beyond the initial amazement, I think the townspeople felt this victory all the more because it directly opposes their everyday reality. The last scenes are particularly poignant because of this. In that last rocket, in Homer, the people of Coalwood caught a glimpse of a life beyond coal mining. Perhaps for the first time, they saw the possibility of a different life.

While not groundbreaking in any way, October Sky does elicit that warm, fuzzy feeling that characterizes successful feel-good movies, and—barring undeniable lapses into dramatic fictionalization—succeeds in portraying its material in a credibly realistic yet emotional manner.

‘Look at it go, Homer. This one’s gonna go for miles.’

The King’s Speech (2010)

The King’s Speech does not simply depict the life of a king, but rather chronicles the making of one. Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, is second in line to the throne, but is inhibited from performing his public duties by an uncontrollable stammer, to the disappointment of his ailing father. Exasperated, Bertie consults speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unconventional methods have earned him a recommendation to the Duchess Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Amid professional incompatibilities and personal grievances, the two men forge a lifelong relationship that survives Bertie’s ascension to the throne and the onset of World War II.

Director Tom Hooper deserves praise for selecting an interesting bit of history and successfully turning it into a poignant portrait of an uncharacteristic friendship. The film also owes much to its main cast for its smooth execution. All three deserved the numerous accolades they received. Bonham Carter perfectly captures the role of charming wife, and Rush delivers just the right amount of impertinence as Logue. “My castle, my rules,” he tells the Duke during their first meeting. Firth, of course, shines as King George VI. He embodies his character’s stammers and frustrations so well that it becomes impossible not to sympathize. “If I’m King, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.”

A king struggling with a speech disability provides rich story material for any medium. Hooper knows this, and therefore mines it expertly. With its witty script, winning cast, and beautiful cinematography, The King’s Speech scores a win with almost every critic out there—most notably the judges of the 2010 Oscars. So it comes as a surprise that I am not as wowed by it. Yes, there is the issue of the movie’s “historical hiccups” but that’s not even what bothers me. Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with the film, but my reaction to its Oscars success remains, “Was there nothing else?” The King’s Speech is well-crafted, yes, perfect, yes. It succeeds in what it aims to do. But it doesn’t offer anything else: no challenges or new truths. Essentially, its triumph relies on a tried and tested formula that, for me, just doesn’t deserve a Best Picture award.

‘Sometimes, when I ride through the streets and see, you know, the common man staring at me, I’m struck by how little I know of his life, and how little he knows of mine.’

‘Papa, what’s he saying?’ ‘I don’t know but he seems to be saying it rather well.’