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?

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

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I wanted to finish the year in style and a review of the black and white movie Twelve O’Clock High seemed fitting. This is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies and while I wouldn’t exactly give it a five-star rating, like so many critics did, I still think it’s a very important movie and the acting is superb.

Most air combat movies I have seen so far, with very few exceptions, showed the point of view of the British or the Germans. This is one of the rare depicting the American side.

In 1942 the US Air Force conducted daylight bombing raids. They thought that the precision of daylight bombing would speed up things and end the war earlier. However this put the pilots under a lot of additional pressure. 918th Bombardment Group was one that took much higher casualties than others. Their morale was pretty low, their squadron leader on the brink of a breakdown. Their explanation for their losses was “bad luck”.

Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) doesn’t want to hear any of this. He believes that leadership or rather the lack thereof is the main reason. The squadron leader is too attached to his men, identifies with them which clouds his judgement.

When Savage takes over the command he faces open resistance. The men don’t want such a hard and seemingly unfeeling leader and want to be transferred. Savage won’t let go. He works on their morale, assigns new leaders, regroups the men, even has the change their sleeping quarters. While they are hostile in the beginning, the first raids show, what he teaches makes sense as there are fewer casualties. On top of that he flies every mission with them.

Outstanding leadership, unflinching command, show results and soon the morale is high again and the men start to admire and even like Savage. Unfortunately the intensity of his assignment comes at a high cost.

While the beginning of the movie is extremely wordy, the second half is perfect. A lot of original footage heightens the authenticity and Savage’s character is one of the most interesting in any war movie. As said before, I wouldn’t exactly give this 5 stars (I found the beginning too slow) but it’s certainly a very good movie and Gregory Peck’s acting is outstanding.

Don’t let the poster fool you, by the way, Twelve O’Clock High is a black and white movie.

The Haunted Airman (2006) BBC TV Drama

The Haunted Airman, starring Julian Sands, Robert Pattison and Rachel Stirling is a 70 minutes BBC TV production based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Haunting of Toby Jugg). I thought it was a great choice for this time of the year as it is quite eerie; a mix between psychological drama and horror story.

A young RAF bomber pilot is shot down. His wounds are considerable and he becomes a paraplegic in a wheel chair. His aunt Julia, a widow, decides to bring him to an asylum where the mysterious Dr. Hal Burns treats soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. The asylum is located in one of those huge English country houses.

Toby suffers from different symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Nightmares, hallucinations, visions, phobias. He sees burning cities and dead civilians, relives the night in which he is shot down, imagines being attacked by giant spiders.

Julia is his aunt by marriage. She is gentle and beautiful and Toby is clearly very much in love with her and dreams of marrying her. He writes to her frequently but she never replies. One day he finds out that the sinister doctor has kept back all the letters.

From then on tragic and dramatic things happen. The end is a bit weird and mysterious.

I didn’t mind watching this, it had a gothic, haunted house feel, the images were quite beautiful and Pattison and Sands act quite well. Still, I didn’t really know what to make of it all and didn’t get the end. I went to IMDb and saw that the reviews were extremely mixed. Either 8-10 or 1-2 stars.

I’d say it’s a movie you either love or hate. Being a Robert Pattison fan would certainly influence the reaction.

I don’t like rating movies this much, but in this case, I’ll try to. I’d give it 4 stars for the actors and the cinematography and 1.5 stars for the story. Whether it is OK to turn PTSD into entertainment…

I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

Mephisto (1981)

I wonder what took me so long to watch Mephisto for the first time. István Szabó‘s movie is an absolutely riveting and chilling tale of one man’s betrayal of everything he once believed in and all the many self-deceiving lies he tells himself.  I have always been fond of Klaus Maria Brandauer but this must be one of his very best roles. He is simply astounding.

Mephisto is loosely based on Klaus Mann’s eponymous novel. The story is quickly summarized. Henrik Hoefgen is a famous actor in Hamburg in the early 30s. Hamburg is provincial compared to Berlin and Hoefgen has dreams and hopes and sees himself already as Germany’s most famous actor in the future. While he is most certainly very talented he is equally narcissistic. On the other hand he is full of idealism and flirts with communism. When he plays Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust, he is discovered and receives an invitation to Berlin. Finally his dreams come true. He will be an actor at Germany’s leading theater. In Berlin, as well, it is the role of Mephisto which brings him a lot of admirers, some of which are prominent Nazis. It doesn’t take long and the Nazis try to instrumentalize him. In love with himself and his success he doesn’t see this at first. Soon he becomes the governments pet actor, speaks in its name at openings and supports the government.

While he may be oblivious of the consequences at first, when he starts to realize he has sold out, he begins to lie to himself and pretends it isn’t the artist’s duty to be political. He even goes so far as to pretend that an artist lives outside of everything.

Mephisto is a riveting character portrait and an in-depth analysis of what can become of someone whose conformity and lust for success make him forget that he has a responsibility. The movie looks especially into the responsibility of the artists. While many chose to leave the country as soon as possible, those who stayed often pretended it was their duty not to abandon the country in its hour of need and that those who left were cowards. It’s obvious that the famous actor Gustaf Gründgens, who also worked with Klaus Mann, has served as a model for Hoefgen.

Mephisto is certainly one of the best movies I have seen this year; it’s intelligent and entertaining and the acting is amazing.  So far this is my favourite of István Szabó’s movies. I haven’t seen Colonel Redl yet, – equally starring Klaus Maria Brandauer – but I’m very keen now.