Category Archives: War

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.’

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

New speakers and time to kill: good enough reasons to start a three-hour flick. Maybe I should have known, or at least anticipated it, but the Omaha beach scene took me by surprise. There is almost no conversation, hardly any sound besides the steady rattle of gunfire and the soldiers’ occasional supplications to God. It relies on visual intensity, with such unforgettable images as a man with exposed intestines crying for his mother, a mutilated soldier dragging his detached arm, and a bloody sea lapping against a corpse-laden shore. Barely twenty minutes into the film, and tears had already stung my eyes. It was disturbing enough to begin with, but what made it more affecting is the fact that it really happened—obviously not in the same way but in just as devastating a manner nonetheless.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie follows a group of eight soldiers commissioned to execute an unusual order. Led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), they seek out the youngest of four Ryan siblings (Matt Damon), a private whom circumstance has deemed deserving of a safe journey home. Amid the chaos of World War II, the soldiers fight for mutual survival, and on their way to completing their mission discover that something more than fate binds them together.

Although Saving Private Ryan presents a set of realistic battlefields, the real spectacle lies in the acting. Matt Damon is competent enough, but Tom Hanks gives a stunning performance, bringing to life an enigmatic leader who inspires respect from his men. Other actors also portrayed their roles well, in a way that seemed natural yet convincing enough to set them apart as individuals (Jackson the marksman is my favorite). Because of this, (the end of) their lives mattered beyond statistics: they weren’t just numbers to be counted or names to be sent along with a thousand other death notices. For war is a private affair: it shatters the individual and foments personal hatred, even against a latent awareness that both sides are only victims of a larger violence.

I do not want to spoil the ending, but at some point I became desperate for salvation, and although I did feel some disappointment at the deus ex machina aspect of it, mostly I felt relieved. I had grown so attached to the characters that I craved a happy ending.

‘All we can do here is die.’

‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.’ ‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Corporal, huh? We’re all supposed to die, is that it?’

‘Captain didn’t go to school. They assembled him at O.C.S. out of spare body parts of dead G.I.s.’

‘Sergeant, we have crossed some strange boundary here. The world has taken a turn for the surreal.’

‘And then one day you left. You left me, and I’ve been desperate ever since. I see you all over the sky. I see you all over the earth.’

‘Tell me about your wife and those rosebushes?’ ‘No, no, that one I save just for me.’

Australia (2008)

An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) travels down to her husband’s declining cattle station in northern Australia only to find him dead, murdered. When she discovers that his manager (David Wenham) has been stealing their cattle for a rival company, she fires him and sets about restoring Faraway Downs herself. Along the way she enlists the help of locals like Drover (Hugh Jackman), eventually falling in love with them and the country.

Australia runs for a length of 165 minutes, making it the longest flick I’ve watched since last month’s Braveheart (1995). I found it difficult to follow at first (partly because of their accents), but things soon got underway. It’s basically a two-part movie in one. The first half is a typical romantic adventure: the hero and heroine fall for each other, overcome challenges, defeat the bad guy, and live happily ever after—a family movie if I’ve ever seen one. But it’s not all bad. Alternating landscapes of lush, active wildlife and rugged rock formations pepper this part, providing a fitting backdrop for scenes worthy of an adrenaline rush. The second half is a lot better, more mature. It makes pointed commentaries about war, religion, and racism—filtered through the main characters’ story, of course, but still a welcome reprieve from the first part’s sappy romance.

Essentially an epic drama-adventure story with a happy ending, Australia is far cry from Baz Luhrmann’s earlier success Moulin Rouge! (2001). Clear divisions of good and evil run throughout the film, and the characters are so familiarly one-dimensional they all feel like they can be summarized in a single word. Plus I didn’t like the movie’s portrayal of the locals: the aborigines felt too exoticized, their plight over-sentimentalized (except for the part about them having the right to lead their own lives and preserve their own stories, which I think was just right). It’s not so bad for one sitting—albeit a three-hour one—but it’s not something I would watch again.

‘In the end the only thing you really own is your story.’

‘Well I will have you know, I am as capable as any man.’

‘A lady never knows what she might need.’

‘We gotta get those fat cheeky bulls into that big bloody metal ship!’

‘She deserves a drink like any man.’

‘Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.’

‘Pride’s not power.’

‘I sing you to me.’

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

I like to think that I am rarely at a loss for words, but this time I am. When Damien suggested that I watch this film I downloaded a copy immediately, although I did not know yet what to expect of it. Ace told me that it was lengthy and somewhat dragging (true to its title, she said), and so even as I started playing the movie last night I supposed it would just be a run-of-the-mill production, something to help pass the lethargic hours of the holiday season. I was wrong.

Online synopses will tell you that Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement is about a young woman’s (Audrey Tautou) relentless search for her fiancé (Gaspard Ulliel), who might have been killed in World War I. Much of the story occurs during the last years of the war, structured in flashbacks as Mathilde pieces together the history of Bingo Crepuscule, where five soldiers (including her childhood sweetheart Manech) are condemned to death for self-mutilation. In her investigation she traces the fates of all five men, along the way encountering characters like Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), a murderous prostitute seeking vengeance for her lover’s death.

I can go on and on describing the plot, but what in mere words I cannot say is how beautiful the cinematography was—the only thing I can tell you is to go watch it yourself. Memorable characters like the charming, polio-ridden Mathilde and the inflexible, sorrowful Tina Lombardi abound in the movie. Admittedly its convoluted plot made it difficult to follow at times (exacerbated by my distressing unfamiliarity with French names), but that is my only complaint. More than the horrors of war the story is a testament to the overwhelming tenacity of love: I for one could not help but surge with hope at almost every bend and turn. I believed in Manech, hoped with Mathilde; perhaps the only thing I failed to do was cry. Although the movie was unable to sufficiently suspend my disbelief, I found myself consciously disregarding it in favor of hope. That fact alone, I think, speaks volumes.

Comparisons with Amelie (2001) are unavoidable, since it’s the same director and actress. Like many others I find myself preferring the earlier film, though I’m not entirely sure why. But still I cannot deny very much enjoying A Very Long Engagement; I did not even feel those two hours.

The first time Mathilde and Manech made love, he fell asleep, his hand on her breast. Each time his wound throbs, Manech feels Mathilde’s heart in his palm. If Manech were dead, Mathilde would know.

‘If you can’t cry, try talking. If you can’t talk, say nothing. But sometimes, talking can bring on the tears. Tears say what you can’t say, if you get my drift?’

‘You’ve known he’s dead for three years. I call that stubbornness.’ ‘No, I call that hope.’

‘Revenge is pointless. Try to be happy, and don’t ruin your life for me.’

‘I regret nothing. Except my hair.’

‘Stay where you are, Mathilde. Just stay where you are. I’m on my way.’

In what she would refer to as her ‘Milly expedition’, the sun, the sky, and nature are with her.

Mathilde leans back against her chair, folds her hands in her lap, and looks at him. In the sweetness of the air, in the light of the garden, Mathilde looks at him. She looks at him… She looks at him…