Film Reviews

Zero Dark Thirty & The Impossible

Published February 2, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty arrives at our cinemas with a readymade controversy: “Should director, Kathryn Bigelow, and scriptwriter, Mark Boal, have included the scenes of the CIA torturing prisoners?”
Although it was driven home by the scandal of Abu Ghraib, surely noobdy will be surprised to learn the Americans practised torture. Indeed, it would have been surprising to learn otherwise. The idea of the freedom-loving, all-American spy was pretty much invented by Hollywood, but ever since the fall of Allende and the support of the death squads in Latin America, it has been difficult to entertain many noble illusions about the CIA.
If we accept torture as a fact of life in the secret services, the next debating point is whether it actually gets results. Some have argued the filmmakers implicitly endorse the practise because the interrogators manage to extract a vital piece of information from their captive. But what are we to make of a scene in which the same info turns up in their files, after having been lost for years in the system? Perhaps Bigelow and Boal are recommending efficient filing procedures as an alternative to torture.
It was inevitable that someone would make a movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and the decisive strike. We should be pleased that Kathryn Bigelow got there before Quentin Tarantino. What could have been one long shoot-out in other hands, is treated like a police procedural.
The real skill in this film consists in keeping the story moving along purposefully over a period of years, while much of the actual detective work is done by checking phone records, airline passenger lists and banking details. One suspects that the spy of today spends far more time in front of a computer than out in the field. Even the latest James Bond flick hinted wryly at this state of affairs.
The fictionalised hunt for Bin Laden is led by a CIA operative called, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. The last time we saw this statuesque redhead, she was Mrs. Coriolanus – an excellent preparation for understanding the mind of a mass murderer. Maya is a big step up for Chastain as a character that has to conceal her emotions for much of the movie, occasionally breaking out in flashes of anger or grief. It has made her a candidate for an Academy Award this year, although one looks forward to her next big role, as Oscar Wilde’s Salome in a film directed by Al Pacino (!)
According to Mark Boal, Maya is based on a real person, but her actions are pieced together from many different sources. We are probably more willing to accept the idea of a top-flight female CIA operative after movies such as Fair Game (2010), where Naomi Watts played real-life agent Valerie Plame; or the tele-series, Homeland, with Claire Danes as bipolar spy, Carrie Mathison. Maya’s character goes back to the time of Galileo: the person with a burning sense of the truth who has to convince a group of sceptical colleagues.
Because she is a woman in an organisation dominated by men, there is subtle feminism involved. We assume the chiefs may have acted more quickly had it been a man rather than a woman urging them on. The truth is that the CIA spent a long time observing the compound where Bin Laden was hiding, waiting in vain for a positive confirmation of his presence.
With assistance from an excellent musical score by Alexandre Desplat, Bigelow manages to sustain the tension right up to the climactic moment when the Navy Seals go in for the kill – literally. Rather than fret about the torture scenes, which could have been much nastier, viewers may be more disturbed by the violent, random nature of the raid which is conducted along those familiar lines: “Shoot first, ask questions later.”
While the portrayal of the CIA agents is necessarily problematic, as they seem either too humane or too bureaucratic, the raid has a terrible sense of realism. It is as if we are participants, watching the entire drama through night vision goggles. This is a long sequence but it’s edge-of-the-seat viewing.
One of the most remarkable developments in regards to this film is that a US Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the filmmakers had inappropriate access to CIA information, and whether they are suggesting torture was the key to finding Bin Laden. From a distance this seems like sheer political paranoia. Zero Dark Thirty does not glamorise torture or – more importantly – act as propaganda for Barack Obama.
The President’s sole appearance in the movie is as an image on a television screen announcing that America does not torture. This comes as a disappointment to the CIA crew, who are worried about losing one of their weapons. Such a reaction strikes exactly the right note, but we cannot be sure they will respect this injunction.
Bigelow and Boal have discovered the pitfalls of attempting to make a film that deals realistically with politically sensitive material. No matter how even-handed one’s approach there will be plenty of viewers willing to impose drastic, cut-and-dried interpretations on the story. To many, it is a film that makes America look bad when it should be celebrating a moment of triumph. But there is nothing attractive in the kind of tactics used to track down and deal with terrorists, it is simply a matter of doing what has to be done. Triumphalism is an ugly spectacle, and Bigelow, like the President when he announced Bin Laden’s downfall, has done well to avoid that trap.
From one true story to another, The Impossible tells the tale of a Spanish family holidaying at a resort in Thailand in 2004 when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck. Just as we know from the first frame of Zero Dark Thirty that we will eventually see the end of Osama Bin Laden, in The Impossible we await the inevitable arrival of the big wave. Thankfully we don’t have to wait very long – the catastrophe strikes after about ten minutes of fun in the sun. From this point onwards it is one long, desperate survival story.
The Impossible is another film notable for its extraordinary realism in a genre – the disaster movie – that encourages wild exaggeration and melodrama. Look no further than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) should proof be required. Yet the scale of the Tsunami hardly requires embellishment. Some 300,000 people died, and the insurance bill came to US$10 billion.
The filmmakers’ major deviation from the truth was to turn the Alvarez family of Spain into the Bennetts of England. This allowed them to have everyone speaking English, and to use big name actors such as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as Henry and Maria Bennett. It may sound like a calculated move to crack the American market, but it has allowed the film a global audience, and given Watts a crack at the best actress Oscar, along with Jessica Chastain.
The Impossible is only the second feature by 38-year-old director, Juan Antonio Bayona, following a tremendously creepy debut with the horror film, The Orphanage (2007).
It is a very impressive performance. From the moment the wave arrives the suspense rarely flags, although the story is nothing more than Henry, Maria, and their three sons, staggering through a devastated landscape, seeking salvation and each other.
There is a trace of the sublime in scenes of terror and disaster, and some images in this film have a surprising lyrical beauty, as in a scene in which Watts is slowly waking up after an operation. She dreams of her ordeal under water in the wake of the Tsunami. It is a surreal vision of floating bodies and debris, in which she drifts slowly upwards towards the light of day, as consciousness returns.
Nevertheless, such scenes play only a small part in a narrative that concentrates on the human drama, as the oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) and his badly-injured mother make their way to safety through a muddy swamp. They assume Henry and the younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are dead. We assume so too, until we find that Henry and his sons have also survived, while believing Maria and Lucas to be lost.
This is the “impossible” bit. It is difficult to imagine a family of five could all survive the force of the Tsunami, but since this is a true story we are obliged to suspend disbelief. Bayona never lets us feel there is any certainty they will remain alive, especially Maria, whose condition deteriorates rapidly in the overcrowded local hospital.
For the most part, The Impossible is an absorbing but gruelling experience. When Lucas looks at his mother’s leg and sees a big flap of skin hanging from her calf he winces and goes: “Urrghh!” On the night I saw the film  the entire audience made the same involuntary groan and squirmed in their seats. The mood was momentarily relieved by the sound of a snore from the back of the theatre, proving some people can sleep through anything.
McGregor and Watts are both excellent at being frantic, grimy, blood-stained and grief-stricken, while Tom Holland shows himself to be a highly promising newcomer. There is not much opportunity to display a more subtle range of emotions, apart from the cathartic excitement of the family reunion.
There is probably meant to be something uplifting about The Impossible, as the Bennetts struggle against the odds, but most viewers will simply feel relieved when it’s over. With the knowledge, impressed upon us with the opening credits that everything we have seen is real, there is not even the comforting thought that it’s only a story.

Zero Dark Thirty, USA, rated M, 157 mins
The Impossible, Spain, rated M, 114 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 2, 2013