The new CIA-rehab thriller, as a genre, is anticonspiracy. Unlike the domestic spy thriller of the 1970s, today’s CIA apologist thriller does not reveal how official truth is an illusion, an elaborate cover-up constructed to hide abuses of power.
Instead, the newer, sunnier CIA thriller shows how failure in the intelligence community is merely the result of human error. Overthrowing the democratically elected Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953, for instance, and installing a corrupt puppet government headed by an absolute ruler, is something that could have happened to anyone. Years later there’s a little blowback. Sadly, someone from the Agency has to pick up the pieces.
Ben Affleck’s Argo shows that even movies that don’t exist are more fun, and possibly more real, than the struggle of a nation. Argo is more like a 1970s heist movie than a paranoid espionage film. If it were a Robert Redford ’70s movie, it would be The Hot Rock, not Three Days of the Condor.
Disguising themselves as a film crew allows the cast of Argo to put one over on Iranians who are by turns wily and childish. Confronted by cartoon storyboards for the fake movie (supposedly drawn by Jack Kirby, they look more like the placemats in a Big Boy restaurant), Iranian guards react with delight when one member of the fake crew makes whooshing sounds and jet-plane hand motions. Since this is the exact post–Star Wars position American filmgoers have been put in for decades—in fact beginning around the same time as the Iranian hostage crisis—it’s a little unnerving to find Iranian soldiers standing in for the American audience like that.
Argo puts into practice the cinema-meets-military theories of Paul Virilio in an unpredictable way. We see the CIA as a creator of fantasy here, but that’s all to the good: American lives are saved, no one gets hurt. Our enemies are fooled, not killed. The desire to believe in the movies, Affleck tells us, is universal. Happy endings depend on the success of the ruse, even when the ruse has geopolitical implications.
Argo is a much better film than the previous two Affleck directed, and his performance in it is low-key and self-effacing. The entire cast is good, including Clea DuVall in black glasses and black hair, here at least doing something worthy of her talent, and Adrienne Barbeau, wandering through the Hollywood script-reading scene as a cheeseball actress and producer’s ex-wife.
It’s noteworthy that the selection and reading of a film script plays such an important role in Argo, even if the whole point is that the script is derivative and lousy. That’s another comment on the era in which Argo takes place. The existence of Argo, which could not have been made back then because its story was classified by the CIA, is more proof that that era is over, historical. Part of the fascination in watching Argo is wondering whether this caper could work today. The friendlier, humanized CIA of the Carter Era this film asks us to trust relies on fake mustaches, not enhanced interrogation techniques.
Zero Dark Thirty
All Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty asks us to believe in is the brute presentation of facts. Whether or not the film is a torture film is therefore, the film implies, beside the point. Torture happened, the film says, and here’s how. So of course Zero Dark Thirty is a torture film, but we are expected to understand that now we are beyond the moral question of whether torture is right or wrong. The CIA got various kinds of information from torturing various people. Regardless of whether that information was good or bad, information is power. You sift, you put the pieces together, just like the Iranian schoolchildren in Argo put photographs back together from documents the US Embassy shredded in Tehran. Eventually you get a clear picture and if you’re lucky human error doesn’t enter into it and you are allowed to act on what you’ve learned and kill the guy you need to kill.
The film is in three parts. Part One: Torture. Part Two: Intelligence. Part Three: Execution. Each is a separate film that struggles between being quality television and something more cinematic, defined by Jessica Chastain’s film-hero poker face and go-it-alone refusal to succumb to backstory, or do anything but work, grimly, at her job. Chastain’s Maya, we later learned from news stories about the film, is a composite character meant to represent the hard work done by many women in the CIA in its effort to find and kill bin Laden. At the same time, she stands for every American woman today, who can succeed if she works day and night, if she stares into her computer for as long as it takes, if she makes the mean face but doesn’t complain when her boss doesn’t understand she’s right, and is willing to relocate.
Bigelow wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times in which she explained that when it comes to torture in Zero Dark Thirty, “depiction is not endorsement.” But as always in the movies, the problem is not in the what but the how. How torture is depicted is more important than that it is depicted. Since Bigelow used to work for Semiotext(e) back in the day, maybe some French film criticism will come in handy here.
In 1961, Jacques Rivette, writing on the 1959 Gillo Pontecorvo film Kapò, which is about the inmates of a concentration camp, singled out one shot that ended on the hand of a character played by Emmanuelle Riva (Emmanuelle Riva who stars in Amour) as she died on an electrified barbed-wire fence. To Rivette, the preciosity of this shot was contemptible. Earlier in the piece, Rivette noted that this mixture of easy “realism” and spectacle was inherently immoral, because “that which [the filmmaker] dares present as ‘reality’ is physically tolerable for the viewer . . . but ultimately not intolerable. . . . At the same time everyone unknowingly becomes accustomed to the horror, which little by little is accepted by morality, and will quickly become part of the mental landscape of modern man; who, the next time, will be able to be surprised or irritated at that which will in effect have ceased to be shocking?” (The translation is David Phelps’s and Jeremi Szaniawski’s.)
This is the exact effect of the torture in Zero Dark Thirty. In 1983 Kathryn Bigelow played a feminist revolutionary working for a newspaper in Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames, which imagines a socialist America and ends with a bombing at the World Trade Center. Questions of depiction come down to whose side you are on. If that seems too simple, it is no simpler than saying that “depiction is not endorsement,” an evasive notion that lets any film director off the hook entirely, every time. After the “firsthand account” of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, it is hard not to conclude that Bigelow, like Maya, is working for the Man.
James Bond has always been the Man, that is the whole point of James Bond movies. Skyfall is a movie for a confused era, a digital, data-driven era, where killing is done by remote control. At first the film seems to admit it no longer makes sense to keep Bond on the payroll in this new world. The film starts with a radical move: Bond is shot and killed by another agent who happens to be a black woman (Naomie Harris). The story of Skyfall is the story of this character. First she kills Bond. Later she seduces him but is thrown over for an Asian temptress. She comes back at the end as the new Miss Moneypenny, Bond’s boss’s secretary, whose role is to lust after Bond but never get him, an underling he constantly teases. She wears a tight dress and sits in an office looking at Bond with big eyes while admitting she wasn’t really cut out for fieldwork in the first place—she accidentally shot him, after all!
So much for empowerment. The theme of Skyfall is that the world must remain safe for white Englishmen to run around shooting people who aren’t white and English. The film ends in Scotland, the ancestral home of Bond and the emotional heart of the upper-class Great Britain Orwell identified in “Such, Such Were the Joys,” a domain of shotgun blasts and heritage-brand hunting togs, where large stags still wander, imperiously and symbolically, like they did in The Queen, with Helen Mirren, in 2006. It is here that the film’s one good moment emerges, as Daniel Craig’s Bond and Javier Bardem’s pan-ethnic (but paradoxically ultra-pale) villain chase each other across the moors until Bardem, exasperated, needles him: “Do you see what comes of all this running around, Mr. Bond? All this jumping and fighting, it’s exhausting.”
Recruited into the secret agent game by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., American superheroes in The Avengers fight to protect New York from total destruction. It is no longer enough for one superhero to fight a single villain while dealing with his own personal problems, apocalypse must now enter into it. This apocalypse comes in the form not of climate change, the real menace to New York we witnessed firsthand in 2012, but in the form of mechanized aliens who must be stand-ins for our new enemies, the Chinese, because when they attack it looks like the sky is shitting endless orders of steamed whole fish.
Tom Hooper directs every scene and composes every shot in this bloated, reactionary musical as if he were trying to express a new idea every time any actor moves a fraction of an inch. At the same time, this version of Les Misérables depends on absolute familiarity with the songs from the stage musical to produce the tears that are its reason for existing. Hugh Jackman’s performance eventually moves even the uninitiated to cry, not because he is so moving—often he sounds like Walter Brennan singing “Old Rivers”—but because he had to endure so much just so two insufferable teenagers could get married.
Hooper’s approach to revolution in the streets is to telegraph how doomed it is from the start, but also to show that it is completely justified—every character in the film is so exploited that he or she is a clear argument for immediate radical change. This sickly paradox puts the viewer on the side of getting the inevitable over with. Long before a little boy (Daniel Huttlestone), the mascot of the revolution, is killed by soldiers, his status as the most annoying Cockney urchin in the history of cinema made me want to see Russell Crowe’s Javert beat him to death with Leonardo DiCaprio’s hammer from Django Unchained.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s animatronic performance in Spielberg’s film underscores how Abraham Lincoln is like E.T., appearing among human beings to make things right before going back to the mysterious place he came from. He is also the perfect contemporary dad, reading to his little son about bugs while Congress debates the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln performed the important function of getting Americans to think about the terrible legacy of slavery in this country, and to reevaluate the influence of the South on national affairs. It is a political movie in every way, and has a science-fiction aspect: it posits white people as alien oppressors. White people are so white in Lincoln, which photographs them as grayish and pale under a winter sun, that sometimes it testifies to the lack of tanning salons in Washington DC in 1865.
Day-Lewis’s pronunciation of the word righteous as “right-ee-ous” left an indelible mark on me, and it is no doubt historically accurate. But as someone from a small town near Hartford, I resent the film for claiming that the abolitionist Congressional representatives from Connecticut voted against the amendment to end slavery. That bothered me when I saw the film, but I never bothered to check whether it was true, and when Maureen Dowd wrote in her Times column that it wasn’t, and that Tony Kushner dismissed his mistake by equating it to showing Lincoln wearing blue socks instead of green socks, I became doubly annoyed, because now I was in the position of defending a state I’d be happy never to see again and admitting I’d learned something from Maureen Dowd.
There’s another thing Kushner left out of his screenplay that would have been good to include. When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, a Native American colonel on Grant’s staff named Ely S. Parker was there, too. Parker, who is played in Lincoln by Asa-Luke Twocrow, drafted and wrote by hand the terms of surrender delivered to Lee, and in the film we see him on the porch with Grant as Lee approaches. This is not in the film, but when Lee saw Parker, he thought he was black, and made some remark to that effect, which he had to apologize for when told Parker was a Seneca Indian. “Well,” said Lee. “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded by pointing out, “We are all Americans, sir.” Not including this great moment implies that there was something Spielberg and Kushner thought was too corny for this film.
Django Unchained is not so much the evil twin of the saintly Lincoln as its nasty, more clever kid brother, fighting the favorite for recognition, acting out. If I prefer it to Lincoln it’s because I prefer the Tarantinian project, flaws and all, to Steven Spielberg’s entire career. Lincoln may be the culmination of the Spielberg–Lucas reimagining of the American cinema as family entertainment, a transcendent work beyond the blockbuster form that reimagines the official national myth of an official national father for current and future generations.
Tarantino is more interested in a pre-consolidated cinema that predates Spielberg, in which national myths were put to use in tawdry, violent, and grandiloquent ways, and myth was open to interpretation by genre filmmakers outside the US. So however Tarantino has failed the actual history of slavery in the United States, the way he has opened it up for discussion strikes me as far more remarkable than the storybook of Spielberg’s Lincoln, which closes with a thump and sends us off to bed.
People forget how sick, not anemic but twisted and ugly, the cinema had become before Spielberg and Lucas made movie theaters safe for families again. Tarantino looks to the minor glories of that era, which were amoral and provocative and not designed to last forever on any storage medium other than film. Maybe if you were never dragged by an adult to see an end-of-Hollywood/end-of-America movie like Hustle, with Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve, you can’t truly understand how warped it was. That film came out in 1975, the same year as Mandingo, a repellent, brutal film about slavery that is a touchstone for Tarantino.
Spaghetti westerns questioned the underpinnings of civilization. They examined sick societies through the eyes of tight-lipped, one-dimensional antiheroes surrounded by manic, cruel, and jaded characters who played terminal games of cat-and-mouse and growled dubbed insults at each other. The tense dinner scene at the Candyland plantation in Django Unchained captures their tone. When Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Schultz, demands that the harpist sitting behind him stop playing Beethoven, Tarantino shows us the hypocritical European elegance spaghetti westerns layered underneath their operatic gunfights. That scene, the one at the beginning with Schultz holding his lantern looking for an honest man, and the blood on the cotton, are as original as moments in Leone or Corbucci.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Certain liberal-minded film critics judged Beasts of the Southern Wild harshly, were outraged by it, describing it as racist, shamelessly manipulative, and like advertising. That, putting it mildly, is a stretch. The film is such a convincing, fully realized, and overpowering achievement that begrudging its popular and artistic success is feckless. The film understands an America that is divorced from social services and beset by environmental collapse, but understands those things at the level of fable. It’s not a documentary of Katrina and Louisiana any more than The Wizard of Oz was a documentary of the Dust Bowl and Kansas, and expecting it to reflect the exact political reality of its time, or any kind of progressive politics, is like hating The Wizard of Oz because it’s not propaganda for the New Deal. Quvenzhané Wallis is Beasts’ Judy Garland, and her narration is as emotional and devastating as Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Her hopes for the future and for the people in her community are no different from Garland’s at the end of The Wizard of Oz. That’s not a crime, and she’s not running for office.
Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock convinces us that he is not Anthony Hopkins without convincing us that the lumpy man he is playing is Alfred Hitchcock. His portrayal lacks the sly charm of Hitchcock’s TV introductions and seems overly interested in telling us Hitchcock was sad and weird. It does succeed in reminding us that there was a time when film directors had different body types, weren’t all at least six-foot-three, didn’t go to the gym, and didn’t all wear sweaters with zippers.
Hitchcock also does two other noteworthy disservices to the master. One is that it eliminates his daughter from his marriage to Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Since Patricia Hitchcock has an acting part in Psycho, which this film details the making of, that is a pointed omission designed to further question Hitchcock’s marriage. The second is that every time Hitchcock takes a drink—and this film has him drinking wine and scotch frequently, including on the set—the soundtrack accompanies his imbibing with impolite slurping sounds. Hopkins’s prosthetic lips seem wine-stained throughout. I’ve read a few Hitchcock biographies, some of which impugn him mightily, but I don’t recall reading this fastidious man was a slurper.
This low-key but agitated antiauthoritarian film often comes off like a buddy movie about two very different men who like to get together to drink paint thinner and antifreeze. The Master is puzzling at all times, ignoring our desire to decipher it as it’s unspooling (if you saw it on film). It creates a weird mood, as if in a dream The Shining got mixed in with Altman’s Popeye. It keeps verging on the horrible and the cartoonish without quite getting to either. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance successfully combines Marlon Brando with Moe Howard, while Philip Seymour Hoffman looks on, occasionally getting irritated but indulging him all the same. Amy Adams, as Hoffman’s Lady Macbeth-ish wife, puts the brakes on the Phoenix–Hoffman relationship by masturbating Hoffman in front of a bathroom sink and uttering threatening, nonexplanatory lines like, “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all.” When Hoffman sings the entirety of the song “Slow Boat to China” to Phoenix, it’s clear the film is ending and that Phoenix will now be free of his demons, but why “Slow Boat to China”? Because Phoenix was in the navy in World War II? Because they met on Hoffman’s boat? Because the intense, repetitive, ad hoc, and perhaps meaningless process Hoffman has put Phoenix through has “melted his heart of stone”?
Flight is an excellent, hard-hitting, sleazy movie about an alcoholic airline pilot (Denzel Washington, really great here) who, hungover and right after surreptitiously downing three vodka nips, crash-lands a malfunctioning plane during a storm, saving everyone onboard except the flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) he’d spent the night with. It is so good, except for the syrupy last ten minutes, that it is hard to believe Robert Zemeckis, who directed it, has spent the last twenty-five or so years since he made Back to the Future directing the things he’s directed. Flight contains many riveting scenes, but one, with Washington alone in a hotel room the night before he faces a hearing about the crash, is especially riveting, and does not sell out the film. Its climax comes on a shot of a nip bottle, the kind he drank on the plane, sitting on top of a mini-fridge, one of 2012’s best shots, so to speak.
Life of Pi
I went to the Sunday matinee of Life of Pi, in 3D, at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 and paid my $18.50 to get in. Since it was Sunday morning I had stopped on the way and bought a large coffee to drink while I watched the movie. As I approached the escalator to get to the floor where the movie was playing, a ticket taker stopped me and told me I could not go in with coffee. If I wanted to see the movie, I would have to finish it before I went in or throw it out. I asked why. He said it was the theater’s policy. I suggested that since the cineplex was almost empty because it was eleven in the morning, he might just look the other way if I brought the coffee in. No way, he said, they watch me on cameras. So I went back downstairs and got my money back. Sorry, Ang Lee. That coffee was more important to me that morning than seeing a movie in 3D.
Instead of seeing it, I walked over to the Strand, which is nearby, and looked at the discount books out front while I drank the coffee. I picked one up and opened it randomly, where I read something that seemed related to Life of Pi because the movie has a tiger in it. Reading it also had the virtue of being free and allowing me to drink the coffee while I read it: “Rapt/I dwell in this thorn and my claw alights/On the sweet breasts of poverty and crime.”Momentarily I considered stealing the book because it mentioned crime and I wanted to get back at the world for the movie theater’s absurd policy. I bought it, though, and that and the coffee together cost more than ten dollars less than seeing Life of Pi.
Making a film featuring the music of Benjamin Britten and a biblical flood so you will get the chance to see a 12-year-old girl dancing in her underwear is a perfect example of going the long way around the barn. And the barn is the perfect color.
The Impossible is too one- or two-note to succeed as a prestige film. It lacks subtext or metaphor, or any subtlety at all, and deals with climate change head on. It is a horror film about Western tourists, directed by a horror director (Juan Antonio Bayona), without any of the genre trappings of a horror film.
Note one, the first half of the film, is the tsunami that struck countries on the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea, including Thailand, where the film takes place at a pricey resort, in 2004. Note two is the aftermath of the tsunami, during which a family searches for one another across a vast, devastated landscape. Bayona’s staging of the tsunami without (seemingly without) digital effects is relentless, convincing, terrifying, non-stupid, and without Hollywood wonder. The second half features Naomi Watts, the mother, in a hospital bed, mostly unable to move, mostly unattended, and slowly dying. The film has a message: Welcome to the vacation of the future.
Fans of Jacques Rivette, Carlos Saura, Robert Altman, and Alan Rudolph will appreciate Geraldine Chaplin’s out-of-nowhere appearance in The Impossible as an elegant older woman, also cast adrift by the tsunami, who briefly and somewhat enigmatically shows up to speak to one of the two lost sons. The Impossible is a more trenchant and realistic film about the future of English people in foreign countries than Skyfall. The two films should play as a double feature.
The fate of African Americans in the South, the CIA, great floods, and immobilized bodies: these were the themes that got films nominated for Oscars in 2012. Michael Haneke’s crossover hit, Amour, begins with the corpse of Emmanuelle Riva, decomposing on her bed and surrounded by flowers. Through Riva, the star of Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, one of the French films from 1959 that changed everything, Haneke freezes the European art film in history, immobilizes it, while delivering a poignant film about aging and dying that will please a mainstream audience. Somehow this comes off as typical Hanekian perversity and slightly annoying “last modernist” pretentiousness. Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has worked with almost every great or even interesting European director, from Rohmer, Chabrol, and Truffaut to Kieślowski, Corbucci, and Costa-Gavras, ends the film, and with it, Haneke implies, a whole world of film, a whole era. He does it in a way that will ensure viewers unfamiliar with Haneke understand he didn’t make Amour for the Hallmark Channel.
I was prepared to feel awkward while watching The Sessions, a noble film about a poet (John Hawkes) immobilized by polio who hires a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to guide him through the first sexual encounters of his life. I was not prepared for the combination of Helen Hunt nude plus a Boston accent. The fact that the poet’s first name is Mark added to my discomfort. “Mock, Mock, it’s time to get stotted. Mock, we should stot.” It was the first time sex in a movie made me want to cover my ears.
Silver Linings Playbook
This shrill movie, which features lots of yelling, reinvents the screwball comedy for a post-collapse America by thoroughly deglamorizing its genre. Set in a lower-middle-class Philadelphia suburb, it is a Philadelphia Story in which the female lead (Jennifer Lawrence) dresses only in black, and the male lead (Bradley Cooper), no Cary Grant, works out in a garbage bag. The craziness of screwball is literalized in Silver Linings Playbook. Both characters are, to varying degrees, mentally ill, on meds, or in therapy. The story contains standard rom-com elements, but David O. Russell and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shoot the film in a self-consciously gritty, shaky, and underlit way that deflects any resemblance to, say, Friends with Benefits.
Silver Linings Playbook is difficult to like, and too long, with a climactic dance scene that is filmically botched, which is fine with the movie because according to the plot it did not have to be good to succeed. The chatty, exasperating qualities of Cooper’s pathology, which Russell understood so well in The Fighter, are equally present here, but Cooper seems more violent and unhinged than Christian Bale did in that movie because he’s nicer and closer to normal. Just as this movie is closer to the romantic experiences of many, many people than the standard-issue Hollywood rom-coms it has stylistically left behind.