Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden

I knew I was going to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, no matter what it would be about but I would have wished she had chosen another topic.

Zero Dark Thirty is an almost 3 hour-long movie on the hunt for Bin Laden. It starts on 9/11 … with voices of victims recorded during the attacks. Next thing we’re in a detention center in Pakistan witnessing CIA agents torturing a man. A male agent is torturing while a female CIA agent, Maya, is watching. Maya is new, recruited fresh from college, and assigned to one of the most important tasks in CIA history – the hunt for Bin Laden.

While she only watches the interrogations at first, she will later lead them and become the most important agent in this assignment. As early as 2002 0r 2003 she starts to follow a lead, a man she believes to be in contact with Bin Laden himself, a courier. Unfortunately the guy is very elusive, the captured and tortured men contradict each other, his name seems only a nick name, his true identity cannot be found. Eventually he is even said to be dead.

Maya is considered to be obsessed and her superiors start to doubt that what she is pursuing is real. But she won’t give up and is proven right in the end. The rest is history.

I felt very uncomfortable watching this movie. The torture scenes are unpleasant and the fact that the US, who always denied that they use torture, are shown doing it even more so.

Does the outcome justify this? The movie is showing the story as it was. Or is it not? That’s the big question. What we see are scenes showing a group of CIA agents trying to find a man, using every possible way, alternating with scenes from terrorist attacks. Islamabad, London, New York…. While the CIA hunts Bin Laden, the terrorists don’t sleep.

The movie takes a lot of time to tell the story and the first 2 hours are long. I couldn’t help finding the last action-packed sequence interesting. They show the final moments, when the special troops invade the compound where Bin Laden was hiding and how they kill him.

The movie is OK but certainly not a must-see. I’m clueless why anyone would want to make a movie about this. If you are not familiar with the details, it’s interesting to watch but it still left a very bad taste. It is like a documentary and never questions anything, never accuses. It seems to say that without torture, Bin Laden would never have been captured. That’s quite possible but does that make torture acceptable? On the other hand, terrorism is despicable…

I was wondering why Bigelow chose this topic. Because a woman found him? Since I’m not watching the news very often, I don’t know how much was known about the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Is the movie meant to get rid of the general public’s naivety about torture?

I don’t think I’ve seen Jessica Chastain who plays Maya before and couldn’t help comparing her to Claire Danes in Homeland. I’m afraid I like Danes much better. Not only as an actress but I also like her character better. She seems a tad more conflicted about what she is doing. Other actors worth mentioning are Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton.

As I’ve just said above, this isn’t a must-see. I’m truly disappointed in Kathryn Bigelow.

Have you seen the movie? Did you like it?

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István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.