Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty -- torture and its effects

Director: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012 (R)

Kathryn Bigelow achieved fame with her Oscar win for the superb chaos of war movie, The HurtLocker in 2010. What she did for the war in the Middle East she does for the war on Al Qaeda in this superb and intense spy thriller. Nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it won’t win as it is morally complex and has stirred up trouble in Hollywood for its depiction of torture. Most notably, she was snubbed a nomination for Best Director as a result.

The movie is about the hunt for and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and it is reputedly based on first-hand accounts. It is centered on Maya (a superb Jessica Chastain, The Tree ofLife, another actress who seems to be everywhere these days), a young CIA agent whose single-minded obsessions ultimately leads to the successful conclusion of this hunt.

The opening scene is all sound and no picture. Against a black screen, we listen to the actual recordings of the phone calls made from the hijacked airliners on 9/11 in 2001. As we hear the fateful voices of those doomed to die in those terrible terrorist attacks that transformed our country, the mood is established. We all remember that fateful day. We remember where we were when we saw the twin towers come down. And we remember the violence perpetrated against a vulnerable public. This sets us up for the hunt for justice, or vengeance, that took another decade.

Zero Dark Thirty is military speak for 30 minutes after midnight, that time when the final assault on Bin Laden’s secret hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan occurred. The film itself takes two hours and two acts to get to this third and final half-hour. But it needs to do so, to establish how much it took to find Bin Laden, and how much it cost, both for the hunters and the hunted.

The first act focuses on the years after 2001, when Maya and her CIA colleagues follow lead after lead to try to get to Bin Laden. Although somewhat confusing at times, it conveys the sense of frustration when leads culminate in dead ends. The stress of the job takes its toll just as investigative work takes its time. She has support from Dan (Jason Clarke), her CIA superior, even as she seems blocked at times by the head of the CIA in Islamabad Pakistan (Kyle Chandler), who seems more worried about the politics than the purpose.

It is in the first act, even the first few scenes, that the acts of torture, or “enhanced interrogation,” are prominent. The first visual scene is powerful. Dan (Jason Clarke), a seasoned CIA interrogator, walks into a black site somewhere in the world, accompanied by several people in ski masks. Maya is one of the masked operatives. Standing imprisoned is an Al Qaedi. Dan tells this prisoner quietly , “Can I be honest with you?  I’m not your friend. I’m not gonna help you. I’m gonna break you.” He goes on, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” And he does, in a number of ways that force us as viewers to cringe and wonder if this torture will be effective. And when he says, “It’s cool, that you’re strong and I respect it. But in the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology,” we believe it. We just wonder what it will take. It takes a couple of scenes of waterboarding, that technique that has been bashed by most people as horrible but has come to be most closely associated with the torture in the aftermath of 9/11.

Torture is one of the ethical dilemmas of the film. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, in a rare incident, issued a statement about the film questioning its historical accuracy and contradicting the assertion that torture had been of any significant benefit in locating Bin Laden. Moreover, liberal actors, including Martin Sheen, organized a public condemnation of the film for what they claimed is its tolerance of torture. Bigelow, though, has stated that she is merely depicting what took place, neither endorsing or condemning it. Indeed, she seems to go out of her way to avoid giving an opinion on torture. Like her troubled heroine, she seems conflicted about this morally complex dilemma.

In contrast, Paul Miller, assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington DC, offers a strong response to such liberals. As one who has served in the army in Afghanistan and in the CIA as an analyst over the last decade, his credentials for an opinion seem unquestionable. In an article published in Christianity Today’s Books and Culture entitled "Justice at Zero Dark Thirty", he says:
“The scene of waterboarding that Bigelow included in the movie is an accurate dramatization. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the "enhanced interrogation" the United States conducted after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run. Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.”
He goes on to ask, “Is that just? Are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense?” He refers to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about the moral duty of government to protect its citizens, and concludes that if executing a war criminal is justified so is enhanced interrogation to gather the information necessary to find that war criminal.

One of the three key scenes I took away from the film occurs as Maya is watching with her colleagues as President Obama is giving a TV interview. He declares that there will be no more torture, and this juxtaposes with the first act to transition the second act to straightforward investigation apart from torture. Maya seems saddened if not conflicted by this. As with the film, I will leave this issue for readers to work through themselves; Miller’s article is a worthy read.

The second act focuses on the hunt once a name has been found. A close courier to Bin Laden identified, and the real hunt is on. Even then, it is slow and methodical work, with two steps back for every three steps forward.

It is in the third act, that this gripping spy thriller turns into a subdued action film. Here, Maya’s work culminates in a Navy Seal operation to go in under cover of darkness to kill Bin Laden. Using shaky-cam techniques, we vicariously go in with this team of experts not knowing for certain if he is even there.  Playing out in almost real time, there is an intense feel, as we wonder even as we know the outcome.

The second theme of the film is the effects of this obsession on Maya.  Jessica Chastain delivers a stunning Oscar-worthy performance (and she is nominated for Best Actress) as a person whose obsession drives the chase even when others are ready to give it up. But it changes her.

The opening scene of torture is key. She enters the interrogation room with a ski mask covering her face. But, when she goes back in moments later, she elects to leave her face bare, like Dan. She will face this for unprotected. She is in it 100%.

From rookie operative first joining Dan’s team in Pakistan, the life of a CIA agent in a “friendly” country adjacent to Afghanistan begins to take its toll. Two bombings, one in a hotel and one in a military facility, shake her to the core.  But it’s the third scene, after she is back at CIA HQ in Langley where her confidence becomes apparent. She has already pointed out, “You can’t run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave.” Unlike her CIA counterparts who think Bin Laden is still in Afghanistan, she believes he is in a compound in Pakistan. When asked by the Director of the CIA if they believe Bin Laden is in the compound, most of her colleagues dance around the answer, saying they are 50% or 60% confident. Even Dan, her mentor (himself deeply impacted by his part in the torture), won’t back her at this point. Yet, she states unambiguously she is 100% confident. She is ready to drop a bomb on the compound!
Maya goes from confused rookie, to conflicted leader, to confident facilitator. And at the end, she is watching her team take action based on her intelligence.

The final scene at the conclusion focuses the camera on Maya’s face. In close-up, we see a single tear run down her face, and we are left to wonder: is she satisfied? Is she emotionally scarred? Will she go on? The movie leaves these questions unanswered.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Friday, February 22, 2013

Flight -- drugs, denial, deception and confession

Director: Robert Zemeckis, 2012 (R)

In January 2009 Captain “Sully” Sullenberger piloted a  disabled plane, landing it in the Hudson River of Manhattan in New York. All 155 passengers and crew survived. Sully emerged a true American hero. Now imagine if Sully had been drunk during this event and you get the picture of Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) the hero/antihero in this film.

The movie opens with a scene of debauchery. Whip is sleeping naked in a hotel room. His friend and airline attendant Trina is walking about naked, looking for something to smoke and something to wear. Whip wakes, snorts some coke, drinks some beer, and after a shower emerges looking cool behind his avaiator shades. He is apparently ready for his day’s work to begin: a milk-run flight from Miami to Atlanta.

Initial turbulence lends an air of gravity and concern to the easy flight. Yet, Whip takes it in stride, even as his copilot, a cartoonish Christian, struggles to know what to do. It is when mechanical failures hit that the real troubles begin. Whip is in his element. He is in control. He flips the plane over so that it is flying upside down and then lands it in a field beside a church. Only a half-dozen people die, including his one night stand.

Hailed as a hero, Whip awakes to find himself in a hospital with minor injuries. But not all is well. His friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) from the pilot’s union is there. And he later brings a lawyer (Don Cheadle) to their meeting because initial toxicology reports indicate that Whip was over the limit while flying. Ha could face imprisonment if this is substantiated.

Into the mix comes Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman Whip meets while in the hospital. A drug addict, she has hit bottom and nearly overdosed. They find themselves drawn together, and she forms a perfect foil for him. As she is committed to beating the addiction, joining AA and getting clean, he is denying his issues and deceiving himself.

Washington gives a sterling performance as a deeply flawed unsympathetic character we are morally ambivalent about. His easy charm and confidence initially win us over. But each time he pulls some stunt to turn us away, so our emotions teeter-totter back and forth, just as they often do in real life for addicts. This is one of his best performances, certainly of recent years, and has been recognized by an Oscar nomination. Reilly, a relative unknown, turns in excellent work, stealing several scenes from him. Greenwood and Cheadle are solid. And John Goodman shows us as Harling Mays, Whip’s pusher and “friend”. A larger than life character, he brings some much needed humor to this film, as he did to Argo earlier last year.

Flight offers a rough and raw picture of the cycle that surrounds addiction, especially for the “functioning alcoholic” who is not some decrepit curb-dweller. The drugs and drinking addiction includes and starts with denial. There is no problem. It might be for someone else, but not for me, is the thinking. Such rationalization works for a while, sometimes a long while. But eventually something forces its way into our face. It might be an overdose and an awakening in hospital, as it was for Nicole. It might be a tox report, as it was for Whip. But that results in initial denial. It must be wrong.

Denial is swiftly followed by deception. And this deception comes in many forms and is both outward and inward focused.

In one powerful scene, Whip has returned to his childhood home in the country. Away from the hustle bustle he can recover alone, away from the cameras and the crowds. One of the first things he is does is flush away his drugs and pour out all his booze. He has bottles and bottles of it, all over the house, stashed in various places. He fills a large garbage bag with the empty bottles. He convinces himself he can quit cold turkey. That is the height of an addict’s self-deception.

To others, he appears sober. He tells Nicole and Charlie he has it under control. But he is lying to them, as they slowly discover. But even Charlie proposes deception, in his advice on how to address the committee hearing: “Remember, if they ask you anything about your drinking, it’s totally acceptable to say ‘I don’t recall’.” To which Whip replies, “Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.”

However, lies and little sins like two empty miniature vodka bottles always come back to bite us. The Bible tells us that “he who pours out lies will not go free” (Prob. 19:5). It calls the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The Psalmist encourages us to “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psa. 34:13). When we lie we build up a fiction that must be carefully maintained, and it takes huge amounts of energy to sustain that fiction. One little bottle can cause it come crashing down on our heads. Honesty is the better policy.

In a climactic scene, Whip succumbs once again to the devils he has tried to bottle and control. Once unbottled, they run riot. And one moment of temptation once again takes him down.

Control is a key issue for Whip. This successful pilot has control, or thinks he does, in all areas of his life. But in reality, he has no control. He has been controlled by his addiction.

The apostle Paul talks about control in his letter to the Romans. “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (Rom. 7:5). We struggle with being controlled by the old, sinful nature, and being controlled by the Spirit in new life in Christ. If we are following Jesus we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9). Even then, it is a battle that we cannot win on our own. But with the help of the Holy Spirit we can overcome temptation. As Paul says elsewhere, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). It is all a matter of control.

This leads to the powerful scene that shows the way to overcome addiction. It is not through control and protection; it is through confession.

Nicole found this out through her AA meetings. The participants introduce themselves via, “Hello, I am Nicole and I am an addict.” Confession forces our sin into the light of day. In this way, truth can overcome. This is very much like the opening verses of John’s first epistle: 
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 Jn. 7-10) 
At the end, Whip utters the words, “God help me.” For all of us, and especially for addicts, he can and he does. But only if we let him.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom -- young love, childhood innocence, and salvation by flood

Director: Wes Anderson, 2012 (PG-13)

Offbeat and quirky, Moonrise Kingdom is quintessential Anderson, even down to the actors he uses (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman). It is a tale of two lovers. But these lovers are adolescent misfits shunned by their families.

Set on an island off the coast of New England in the 1960s, Anderson creates a world of his own. This is a roadless realm of few cars, and one town, a community that must pull together in the face of danger and need. The need comes when the two young lovers run away. The danger comes when the storm of the century approaches.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is a bespectacled Khaki Scout, an orphan who is hated by his fellow scouts for no apparent reason. Suzy (Kara Hayward) is the eldest daughter of two lawyers Walt (Murray) and Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand). The separation of her parents, even within the family, is shown in the opening scenes as they are in separate rooms communicating through a bull-horn.

Through flashback we see Sam and Suzy’s budding relationship emerge from their “love-at-first sight” beginnings when she was a bird in the school pageant performing Noah’s Ark. Through love letters penned to one another, they conceive a plan to meet in a meadow and run away across the island to a bay, where they rename the island Moonrise Kingdom.

When they run away, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) calls the police chief Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and together with the scout troop and islanders they form up a rescue-hunting party. With the searchers getting closer, so is the storm.

Anderson juxtaposes the wonders of young love, puppy love really, with the cynicism or clich├ęs of mature love, particularly through the dialog of Sam and Suzy. Despite their youth, they talk like people decades older even when their subject is pre-adolescent. For example, when Sam is preparing to share a tent with Suzy, he says: “It’s possible I may wet the bed by the way. Later, I mean.” And Suzy, declaring to her parents, “We’re in love. We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” We’ve heard this line in any number of movies, yet never from a 12 year-old.

Young love and loss of innocence form the central thesis of the film. The relationship that Sam and Suzy share, mostly through letters, is a flowering of love with all its pains and pleasures. But it is an innocent love that exalts in dancing in underwear on a deserted beach all, and then discovers the tastes of tongue in French kissing. But innocence does not last, if it was really ever there. And the beginning of act 2, along with the discovery of Mrs. Bishop’s affair and the actions of Sam’s foster parents, usher in that post-innocence era. Adolescence indeed does transition a person from child to teen but at the cost of his or her innocence.

Biblically, innocence was lost at the Fall (Gen. 3), when humanity succumbed to the temptations to seek Godlikeness. Despite this, people typically feel that young children retain a certain innocence, a form of moral unaccountability. But none would argue that innocence is lost around the teenage years.

With innocence lost, a form of salvation is necessary. Here in Moonrise Kingdom Sam and Suzy need to be saved, both for themselves and for their community. And Anderson gives us a form of salvation by water. The flood that was depicted theatrically earlier in the film befalls the town, destroying homes and harbor. But the community is saved by taking refuge in the ark: the Church of St Jack. And only when the community pulls together can Sam and Suzy escape the separation that Child Services (Tilda Swinton) wants to enforce, along with mandatory electroshock therapy. Indeed, at the climax Sam faces up to his particular need for a father.

These two themes, of salvation by water and the fatherless finding a father, are eminently biblical.

The flood in Noah’s time (Gen. 7-8) brought destruction and death through the deluge. But the ark provided salvation for Noah and his family. Later, Jesus came by water and blood (1 Jn. 5:6) and brought his own form of salvation to all. This salvation offers forgiveness of sin and absence of condemnation (Rom. 8:1), all through the washing in the blood of the Son (Rev. 7:14). Sam and Suzy’s baptism echoes Noah’s baptism and points to our baptism into the saving ark of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, we are all creations of God, made in his image. He is our father. When we reject or ignore this, we live life fatherless, orphaned like Sam. We harbor a deep need to feel a father’s love. The Bible has almost 40 verses that call out to the fatherless in the nation of Israel, all pointing out that God watches over the fatherless (Ps. 146:9). But in the New Testament we come across a God that wants us to call him Father. In the most famous prayer in the Bible, Jesus tells us to pray, “Our Father . . . “ (Matt. 6:9). He tells us that if we love and follow him, the father will come into us (Jn. 14:23). And if we recognize this burning need and receive him, we instantly enter into his family and become true children of God (Jn. 1:12), now ready to call God our Father. The fatherless come home into community.

Anderson has made another gem, both precocious and poignant. His typical style of meticulous and visually colorful backdrops is there. His atemporal landscape is almost magical, a fantasy that is grounded in the reality of childhood hope and irresponsibility. And it all plays out with an understated gravity and nostalgia that belie the depth of the themes involved. It’s not hysterically funny. But that’s not Anderson’s style. But it is well-acted and captures the recklessness and openness of childhood friendships, even if they are not true love!

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

Monday, February 18, 2013

Brave -- freedom, fate and bad choices

Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell, 2012 (PG-13)

Brave brings a number of firsts from Pixar: their first fairy tale; their first film with a female lead, and a princess at that, and a first use of their new animation system, and a beauty it is. This is a visual feast, a wonder of color that shows us a depth and detail not seen before. We see every lock of Merida’s long red hair flowing in the wind as she rides her horse through the forest. Indeed, this Pixar film feels like a Disney film, a Snow White perhaps, which is not surprising since Disney owns Pixar. Not as good as some of their recent Oscar-winners, yet Brave is a solid add to the portfolio.

The film is set in medieval Scotland, a rugged land of myths and legend. We meet the young Merida (voice of Kelly McDonald) as she is a tot, even then picking up a bow to shoot arrows. Her brutish but teddy bear dad, King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly), adores her and gives her whatever she wants, including a wee bow for her small frame to handle. Her mother Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson), on the other hand, wants her daughter to be a prim and proper princess, learning the arts and charms necessary to be married to a Lord. And there are three other little red-headed kids scurrying around as well. In the early scene, Fergus loses a leg in a quick battle with a legendary bear who escapes but will haunt Fergus’ nightmares from then on.

Cut ahead a dozen years and Merida is a feisty princess with long red hair. A tomboy, she rides to the forest to practice her archery since she cannot do it in her palace. She wants nothing more than to live wild and free. But her mother has other ideas. She (and Fergus) have invited the three first-born sons of the three fighting tribes to come to a feast and competition. The winner of the competition will earn Merida’s hand in marriage. This, of course, is not in Merida’s plans. In one scene she declares, “I want my freedom!” And the Queen answers, “But are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost?”

This first theme, freedom, echoes that of another famous film centered on a Scot: Braveheart. We all want freedom, it seems. When we are trapped into plans we have no control over, we rebel. We want out, as Merida does. But can we really gain our freedom? From what? And at what price?

We are all trapped, slaves indeed. In fact, we are born that way slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16). As such, we cannot escape to freedom on a white horse without some help. That help comes from Jesus Christ, the sinless Savior who took our place on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). The price he paid for our freedom was his very life. And he now offers us his life and the true freedom that comes in him (Jn. 8:36).

But what price did Merida face? Her mother had her path defined for her and her fate was sealed. So, Merida followed some magical will o’ the wisps to a witch’s home deep in the forest. A typical Disney trick, the witch concocts a magic spell to change her mother. But it is more than Merida bargains for, and it really does change her mother. And it changes her fate, as it changes Merida’s fate.

Fate is the second theme, one popular in this genre. Merida comments at one point, “If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?” Her rhetorical question implies an affirmative answer. Later she says, “There comes a day when I don’t have to be a Princess. No rules, no expectations. A day where anything can happen. A day where I can change my fate.” And she completes this thought later in the film: “There are those who say fate is something beyond our command. That destiny is not our own, but I know better. Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.”

The theme here is that we can control our destiny, we can change our fate. But it is a humanistic philosophy that denies the existence of God. But he is there and he is sovereign, having created all things (Acts 4:24). Moreover, he has a purpose for his creation and he has predestined those who follow Jesus to be conformed to Christ (Rom. 8:28-30). There is still a tension between the free will of man and the predestination of God, but fate is not something that lies simply inside of us.

The second part of the film recounts how Merida and Elinor are forced to work together to undo the unwanted effects of the spell. Where before Elinor would not listen to Merida (and there is a great scene of a family dinner where she pays no attention to the princess), now Elinor cannot communicate to Merida though she desperately wants to. Merida has made a bad choice and it is having terrible, possibly permanent effects. It culminates a terrific fight sequence that sheds new light on the mama bear protecting her cubs analogy.

The final theme emerges: making bad choices. We all make bad choices, and they all have consequences. Some are minor and momentary.  We drink too much one night and face a splitting headache the next day. Some are monumental and permanent. We drink too much and drive, and crash our car killing someone. We face prison.

Choices may carry consequences, but forgiveness covers sin. God knows our choices. After all, he is all knowing. And he has provided a way for our sins to be forgiven, even forgotten. Once we repent and turn to Christ (Acts 2:38), his blood covers our sins. We may still have to face the human consequences of our sinful choices, but we can know that God has forgiven us (Mic. 7:18).

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs