Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sector Movie Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Last last year the National Geographic Channel aired a docu-drama based on the Navy Seal raid that killed the Al-Qaeda terrorist leader and mastermind of the September 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden.  The film was told from the perspective of the soldiers who initiated the raid, Seal Team Six.  It aired just two days before the Presidential election and was produced by Harvey Weinstein, a major supporter of the President’s.  Naturally it created a furor as some assumed it would be a late-inning puff piece intended to influence undecided voters towards the President.  Well, needless to say, it’s doubtful that the docu-drama did anything to sway voters in any direction, even though it did accentuate the President’s leadership. 

Two months later, the big budget Hollywood version depicting the raid in Zero Dark Thirty has hit theaters.  Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and writer of The Hurt Locker, take on bin Laden and the mythos encompassing the CIA, two Presidencies and the military – and may have scored another critical hit.  The big difference between ZDT and its Nat Geo little brother is that Bigelow focuses all her attention on the decade-plus long investigation spearheaded at the CIA by Maya, (played by Jessica Chastain who has been nominated for best actress) a young woman who was recruited right out of college who’s only task has been to hunt down the world’s most wanted man. 

The film is based on obvious true events and producers were given incredible access to certain information by the Obama administration, however Bigelow had the daunting task of keeping viewers riveted even though the outcome and ending was a given.  By presenting the story to the audience through the eyes of Chastain, Bigelow was able to do what all great filmmakers are able to do—she created a film that made you emotionally invest in the main character.  Early in the film we are shown a scene where Chastain and the CIA field agent Dan (played by Jason Clarke), are in the process of interrogating a man with information on a courier that worked for bin Laden.  What ensues is probably the most controversial part of the film as it portrays “enhanced interrogation” including waterboarding scenes.

Personally I’ve always been on the fence regarding “enhanced interrogations” and much of what the post 9-11 world that President Bush both dealt with and helped to initiate under his watch.  While some tactics are a necessary evil in the end, we do have to remain vigilant in not relishing them (see Abu Gharib).  Regardless your opinion of the man, it’s hard to say that the tactics that he pushed through including the “enhanced interrogations” didn’t provide the intel our clandestine services needed to finally capture bin Laden.  That’s not to say that “enhanced interrogations” alone were the reason he was finally captured – no endeavor of this magnitude can lend its success to one practice. 

 Is it morally ambiguous not to afford Geneva Convention rights to enemy combatants because they aren’t fighting for a particular sovereign nation?  Perhaps it is.  Then again is waterboarding torture?  Is playing Gwar at 200 decibels around the clock?  These are part of the psychological games the CIA used to weaken the resolve of some detainees.  Some tactics may have played fast and loose constitutionally but one could argue if they weren’t done, would bin Laden have ever been caught? And to Bigelow’s credit, she didn’t try to paint President Obama as some Christ-like deity as compared to his predecessor’s Satan.  The world is a far more complicated place than that and Bigelow is clearly aware of that throughout the film even if some of President Obama’s most strident supporters aren’t.

Bigelow takes a very straightforward systematic approach to the hunt for bin Laden in ZDT.  At times it seemed a bit too procedural bordering on banal but given the length of the actual investigation and the stakes that were at risk, I’m sure those involved were anything but banal.  Unfortunately that’s how it translated on film.  Not to mention that much of Maya’s yeoman’s work is treated as commonplace as your typical office employee.  That in itself lends to the view that much of the work done to capture bin Laden was tedious and often times unproductive—prompting her superiors to question her tactics--so Bigelow’s answer to that was to jump ahead a few years into the investigation.  

To offset the rigidity of the pace of the film, Bigelow and Boal take advantage of the character of Maya to its fullest.  Shining a light on her solitude as she’s so alone-- consumed by the hunt—Chastain owns this role without question.  Even as she’s consistently beaten down by both her superiors lack of faith in her to struggles in the investigation, it’s her resolve that keeps the audience hooked and if you’ve ever seen the Showtime series Homeland, which is also led by a strong female protagonist, you’ll appreciate Chastain’s character even more as she actually represents someone who does exist—albeit without the neuroses of the character from Homeland.

The best example of her resolve comes when one of her colleagues was blown up by a suicide car bomber at the Camp Chapman base in Afghanistan in 2009, killing 7 CIA agents.  Because Maya was spared, she believes it to be an omen that she’s meant to finish the job.  She tells the Seals at the camp, wary of her and the CIA’s presence, “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” speaking about the attack.  “And then I’m gonna kill bin Laden”, prompting a few raised eyebrows from the Seal unit, not accustomed to such steeliness from a CIA field agent. 

The supporting cast is stocked.  You have the Deputy Director played by Mark Strong (Green Lantern, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shouting at his agents in a conference room, “I want targets!  Bring me people to kill!  Do your fucking jobs!”  James Gandolfini plays Leon Panetta, the CIA Director (now the outgoing Secretary of Defense) and along with them were Kyle Chandler as Maya’s cautious station chief, Edgar Ramirez as a CIA operative who tracks bin Laden’s courier, and Jennifer Ehle as a fellow veteran CIA agent.  Each one did an amazing job with what they were given. 

We finally head into the last 45 minutes of the film, introducing Seal Team 6 and the raid itself.  What was a methodical investigative quickly grabs it’s war footing and takes us into what it must have been like to finally achieve one of the greatest battlefield victories in modern history.  The raid itself, while bereft with its own problems (the hard landing of the stealth Blackhawk which later had to be destroyed) changes the viewers point of view, taking on the perspective of the Seal team.  I found it interesting that even though I knew the outcome, I was still riveted and at times unsure of what was to come.  It was ironic because it was that feeling of helplessness that Maya conveyed for the first time in the film, when everything was out of her control. 

Zero Dark Thirty will certainly cement itself in cinematic history if anything for its subject matter and what it means to each viewer on a personal level.  Is it flawed? Yes.  Bigelow actually received little help logistically if any as she had zero access to weaponry or aircraft.  Did Kathryn Bigelow use whatever access she was given to fall in suit with 90% of Hollywood and use this film as a political statement, no.   This was neither a film that carried a torch for the President nor one that drove a stake in the heart of his predecessor.  She created a drama akin to an episode of Law and Order but one that transitioned, at the pivotal moment, into the most significant on-screen adaptation of the most important military action of recent time. 

In the end, after the Seal team successfully completes the mission, we see an emotionally spent Maya, unsure of what to feel—completely lost in the moment.  She’s given the task of confirming the identity of bin Laden’s corpse—confirming that it was him and confirming for the audience that the long struggle to bring the world’s most wanted man to justice was accomplished.  And Kathryn Bigelow has accomplished an excellent look into history in the process. 

The Sector gives Zero Dark Thirty 8 out of 10.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tour de Farce

Apparently there is no lack of public humiliation encompassing the sports world these days.  Everything from the fake dead cyber-girlfriend of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o to the recent MLB Hall of Fame vote which resulted in zero inductees, the first time that’s happened since 1996 and only the 8th time ever, thanks mostly to the stigma left in the wake of the PED era.  Now we have former cycling champion Lance Armstrong doing the latest PED mea culpa in an interview with that hard hitting, take-no-prisoners journalist, the Edward R. Murrow of our day, Oprah Winfrey. 

Doing the proverbial interview with Oprah has become the staple of many a celeb looking to rehabilitate their often times self-destroyed public image.  She’s basically the female Larry King minus the goofy suspenders; never really trying to pry the total truth out of their guests as much as wanting to be “the first” to air whatever the celebrity has to say – all of which has been vetted by their public relations handlers of course.  I call it milktoast Entertainment Tonight journalism as it’s all about the fluff and little about the substance.

For many years Armstrong was accused of taking PED’s and always vehemently denied it both in the public arena and even during depositions while under oath – which could ultimately be his real undoing.  Armstrong won a record breaking 7 consecutive Tour De France titles from 1999 to 2005.  It amazes me how these celebrity/sports types have this complete disconnect with reality and believe that they can sustain charades like these indefinitely.  In Armstrong’s case, I’m not even that upset over the fact that he used PED’s – I’ve become numb regarding PED use and athletes at this point. 

It’s that Armstrong used his celebrity as a bludgeon to destroy the lives of friends, colleagues and business partners and anyone else who came along and questioned his veracity.  Armstrong was no better than a typical mafia thug.  But this mafioso was perfectly created, born from a media cauldron and clothed in cloak of infallibility – yellow bracelets included.  Those yellow bracelets that everyone from politicians to movie stars to school teachers wore happened to be all the rage a few years ago were the creation of Armstrong’s Cancer research foundation, Livestrong and were designed as a way to accumulate donations for cancer research. 

Even the name -- Livestrong -- has an air of invincibility to it and along with the people whose lives Armstrong’s destroyed, it’s the real damage that he’s done to the honest and good work of Livestrong that will test that invincibility over time.  This was from an article on Yahoo Sports by Dan Wetzel and it’s so spot on I had to give him a hat tip.  He has 9 questions that he hopes Oprah will ask:

1. Why now, Lance? Is it because in one potential perjury case the statute of limitations has passed? Is it because you've already lost almost all your sponsors, had to step back from your foundation and are no longer getting the attention you once earned?
Did you have to lose nearly everything until you sought the only possible out? And at this point, why are you worth listening to at all?

2. Why are you doing this with me, Oprah Winfrey? I'm not known for my cycling knowledge or for pointed follow-up questions or my investigative journalistic skills. In fact, it's the opposite.

Wouldn't sitting down with Scott Pelley at "60 Minutes" have been a more legitimate forum? How about the Sunday Times of London, which you sued for libel for printing the truth? Or any of the French or American media that you bashed all along when in fact they weren't wrong at all?

You always fashioned yourself as a tough guy, Lance. You beat cancer for crying out loud, why go soft now?

3. Let's talk Betsy Andreu, the wife of one your former teammates, Frankie. Both Andreus testified under oath that they were in a hospital room in 1996 when you admitted to a doctor to using EPO, HGH and steroids. You responded by calling them "vindictive, bitter, vengeful and jealous." And that's the stuff we can say on TV.

Would you now label them as "honest"?
And what would you say directly to Betsy, who dealt with a voicemail from one of your henchmen that included, she's testified, this:

"I hope somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head. I also hope that one day you have adversity in your life and you have some type of tragedy that will … definitely make an impact on you."

When you heard about that voicemail, why didn't you call Betsy and apologize then?

You can read the 6 other questions that Wetzel would like Oprah to ask Armstrong here.  The questions have the reader feeling exactly what it would be like looking up at a predator drone strike right before a hellfire missle is launched. 

Look I’m not some holier than thou righteous preacher here trying to cast Armstrong and the rest of the PED users off onto some sort of moralistic island where they are mandated to do penance and compete in weird games of skill against Jeff Kent.  In fact when it comes to PED use I’m more upset on how we, the public treat these fools after we discover their indiscretions.  Instead of shunning them we find them fascinating.  Hell even Melky Cabrera who was suspended by MLB last year for 50 games because he tested positive for PED’s, was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent to a 2 year $16 million dollar contract mere months after getting caught. 

I take back anything and everything I’ve said about Armstrong or any of these guys, they’re geniuses.  We’re the dopes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reign Delay?

As I was driving home the other night, I was listening to Casey Stern and Jim Bowden on the MLB Network Radio channel on XM.  They were discussing with Jill Painter, the L.A. Daily News sports columnist, the Baseball Hall of Fame vote which took place Wednesday.  This is the same Jill Painter, member of the Baseball Writers Association of America who thought it made perfect sense to cast one of her Hall of Fame votes for the former Blue Jay, Dodger, Diamondback and Met, Shawn Green.  As she was engaging in verbal kabuki, explaining her vote, I could almost feel the indignation boiling over from the two hosts.  Big kudos goes out to both Bowden and Stern for having the combined patience of a saint.  That interview alone should earn them a few Marconi votes in my view.

It’s a good thing I don’t do radio; I wouldn’t have been nearly as diplomatic as they were.  As if there wasn’t enough preordained controversy with this year’s crop of candidates, we get this nonsense and I’m not even going to enrage you with her supposed rationale.  I have too much respect for you to even try.  It’s almost as bad as the one vote that someone gave Aaron Sele.  Again, not going to enrage you with the facts, you can look up Sele’s pathetic career statistics here if you wish.  Then you have my permission to curse uncontrollably - - and yes you can practice reading that line in your best Bane voice.  Or Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery as I believe they’re one in the same. 

Call me na├»ve but I was always under the impression that those having been afforded the privilege of a Hall of Fame vote would show just a modicum of respect towards it.   I’m not the only one who thinks this way as does the great Metstradamus.  But this is unfortunately the year that common sense, fairness and respect for the game clearly went over the edge of the train tracks faster than a New York City subway commuter.  Ouch. 

Now I’ve been very sympathetic to the plight the writers have when it comes to wading through the waters that PED’s have polluted in Major League Baseball.  But like Metstradamus, when voters use their privilege to make some grand statement (i.e. voting no one in), peppered with some who find it – I don’t know – comical, to vote for the likes of Sele and Green, it simply demonstrates to me that stupidity isn’t determined by who you write for or what and if you get paid for writing it. 

At least I didn't Nair for short shorts Marty.
When the likes of Marty Noble, someone I’ve always had tremendous respect for, thinks that because Mike Piazza had an abundance of—wait for it—back hair, during his time as a Dodger and decides to connect the follicles and assume that it meant Piazza used.  It shows me just how far we’ve fallen as a people more than anything.  We’ll believe the very worst of each other just to protect our own vanity because God forbid a player is later found to have juiced.   

We can’t have writers dealing with pangs of remorse now can we?  To top it off, Noble then ironically said that as a Met, Piazza had a hairless back, which is ALSO a symptom of steroid use.  So if Piazza essentially played with Robin William’s back he’s using yet if he’s smoother than an Abercrombie model he’s also using?  Absolutely pathetic, especially that never, not once, has Piazza been accused or named in any report or tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs. 

I always believed that MLB needs to be far more proactive of a guide for the BBWAA when it comes to Hall of Fame voting and steroids.  I wrote a piece for Metsmerized in early 2011 calling for Bud Selig to commission a panel exploring the effects that PED’s have on actual playing performance.  Of course Selig and MLB want absolutely nothing further to do with this issue—at least not what happened in the past.  One bright spot happened a few days ago when the MLB Players Association and MLB agreed to year round drug testing for Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone. 

I guess 3000 hits just ain't what they used to be huh?
The BBWAA and their writers refused to vote for some players and based it on innuendo and unproven allegations; and that is shameful itself.  In part I can understand their fear of enshrining someone who later is proven to have used PED’s as players elected cannot be removed from the Hall of Fame.  My question is why is that?  Hypothetically if a Hall of Famer does something illegal, whether during or after their playing career, why are they not immediately open to removal?  That, in my opinion, would allow the writers to choose players based on their careers and not on speculation.

George Orwell was quoted as saying: 

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

Now the real question remains, who was Orwell talking about; the players or the writers?