The Political Radioactivity of “Zero Dark Thirty”


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How come a movie as smart and as serious as “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed and scripted by a highly acclaimed team – Mark Bowl and Kathryn Bigelow – is getting so little love this awards season? The answer: the radioactive politics of the film.

The controversy surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty” made the cover of TIME magazine this week. And while that piece of media real estate is not nearly as valuable as it once was once upon a time, it is still an important launching point for conversation among the chattering classes. Washington, certainly, is listening, obsessed even, with this controversy. It is not too often that a movie invades the polite conversation of the morning Sunday talking head shows and muscles its way onto Charlie Rose.

“Zero Dark Thirty” has, in fact, become a sort of cultural Rorschach test in the intellectual argument over the use of extraordinary rendition in the capture of dangerous terrorists as well as its use in the prevention of terrorist acts. The Fox television show “24,” after its own crude fashion a couple of years ago, raised the same controversial set of questions. That was then; this is now. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which takes the most extreme case – the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the world’s top terrorist – has faced questions of accuracy as well as questions of philosophy, now that we as a country have had some time and distance from the emotions of September 11.

If you are on the Dick Cheney side of the political-cultural spectrum, you’ll probably think that “Zero Dark Thirty” is “fantastically compelling” — as The National Review’s Rich Lowry did. Further, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, a hawkish Democrat who headed the CIA in a previous life, loved it and, he says, “lived it.” Panetta liked the way James Gandolfini portrayed him, telling Martha Raddatz on “ABC’s This Week,” “it’s a great movie … I think they did a great job in indicating how this came about.” In fine: if you believe in extraordinary rendition, or enhanced interrogation – flowery ways of expressing a brutal event – then this is the film for you.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, the reviews are more critical, honing in on the motives behind “Zero Dark Thirty.” Natasha Lennard in Salon notes, “(O)f course, the big question driving much criticism of the movie is whether it justifies torture. The argument is rooted in the premise that ‘ZDT’ presents information gleaned from ‘enhanced interrogation’ as crucial in leading the CIA to Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.” CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen – an unpaid advisor to the film — writes, “’Zero Dark Thirty’ is a great piece of filmmaking and does a valuable public service by raising difficult questions most Hollywood movies shy away from, but as of this writing, it seems that one of its central themes — that torture was instrumental to tracking down bin Laden — is not supported by the facts.” Maybe they should have paid him?

Who is right? And does it even matter in the scope of the mission of a dramatic work of art? Biopics, particularly during awards season, face an unbelievable amount of scrutiny. Clearly “ZD30” is not a totalizing narrative, so let’s get that off the table right away. Kathryn Bigelow maintains to the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, “What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film.’’ So if this is not a “true story” — an accurate depiction of a single event — then what is it? And why have the critics fixed on this question of accuracy that has already, quite frankly, been answered by the filmmaker? Again, this leads back to the political radioactivity of the film that I mentioned at the outset.

Whatever you might think of them, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do not play small ball. It is not inconceivable, in fact, that ZD30 might have been too controversial – and thus radioactive – for any major award. How interesting that at this year’s Oscar’s ZD30 – a film fraught with controversy – is set to go mano-a-mano against “Argo,” a universally loved film about a “soft” solution to a political problem in the Middle East, in the Best Picture category. Awards season has turned out to be a battle between two similar films about a troubled region offering different solutions to the problem – one aggressive, the other softer. And it looks as what the juries this awards season want in that category of Best Picture is the Hollywood happy ending.

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding “Zero Dark Thirty”? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Back to Work

How the Comedy Bang! Bang! Crew Spent Their Break

Watch the final season of Comedy Bang! Bang! Fridays at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! is finally back this Friday October 28th at 11P. Even though the show has been on break, the cast and crew have stayed very busy. After ensuring each of CBB’s final episodes will be the best yet and kissing each other goodbye, the Comedy Bang! Bang! family left the studio to try some new things. Catch up with what the CB!B! cast and crew have been up to during the break and then make sure you watch back-to-back episodes every Friday on IFC.

“Weird Al”

Weird Al keyboard
“Weird Al” Yankovic is probably best known as the Comedy Bang! Bang! co-host and bandleader. But, apparently he’s also a musical parodist and comedy icon. While season 5 has been on break, he’s been busy with a cross-country live tour. His live performances continue after the Comedy Bang! Bang! premiere with a headlining gig at Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme.

Scott Aukerman

Scott Aukerman is the Comedy Bang! Bang! host with the most. He’s also the host with the most jobs. According to the show’s IMDB trivia page, Scott stays busy with a podcast that has the same name as the TV show. He’s also a producer of multiple TV shows on SeeSo and recently helped his famous friend Zach Galifianakis interview Hillary Clinton.

Neil Campbell

When Comedy Bang! Bang! is in full swing Neil Campbell is busy writing Emmy-caliber puns and keeping the time as fan-favorite Maxwell Keeper. But given a short break he’s made the leap to guest starring on (and writing for) Fox’s cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It’s a classic cop swap.

Slow Joey

Slow Joey glue
Slow Joey is usually busy on set being one of Scott Aukerman’s best friends and playing his favorite game Caves and Chameleons. But did you know he’s also Hollywood actor Haley Joel Osment? He is.

Mike Hanford

CBB John Lennon
Mike Hanford is both a writer for Comedy Bang! Bang! behind the scenes and Mike the Boom Operator on the screen—but also kind of behind the scenes. Mike helped Comedy Bang! Bang! go international with the live CBB tour in Australia and Great Britain. He’s never been seen in the same room as John Lennon.

Sir Couchley

CBB Sir Couchley
Sir Couchley, the Comedy Bang! Bang! couch who occasionally talks, has been waiting patiently for new celebrity guests to sit on his plush cushions.

Get ready to say Comedy Bye! Bye! and watch the final season of Comedy Bang! Bang! Fridays at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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