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?

Reach For The Sky (1956) Biopic of a Famous RAF Bomber Pilot

Reach for the Sky

If Reach for the Sky wasn’t a true story it would be one of those movies which you’d just shrug off as way over the top but since it is based on a true story it leaves you astonished.

Reach for The Sky is the story of one man’s love for flying which was so intense that it made him  overcome one of the worst things that can happen to a man and later turned him into a legend.

Douglas Bader is a passionate and reckless young RAF pilot when in 1931, while showing off his talents in front of other pilots, he has a terrible accident which costs him both legs.

Determined and optimistic as he is, he makes the impossible possible and soon learns to walk on tin legs, without help or a crutch. Shortly after leaving the hospital, still on crutches during that time, he meets his future wife and love of his life Thelma.

The only bitter moment comes for him when they don’t accept him as a pilot anymore and he has to do desk duty.

If it wasn’t for WWII he may never have flown again but when war breaks out he undergoes tests and is judged fit for service.

The story which is already quite remarkable until that point, gets truly astonishing now. Not only does he fly one mission after the other, survives the Battle of Britain but he becomes one of the best-loved wing commanders until he is shot down in 1941.

He survives and is captured by the Germans. As a POW he shows the same determination as earlier in his life and escapes several times from different camps until he’s finally sent to Colditz castle where he remains until the end of the war.

Douglas Bader’s story is truly amazing. It would have been so easy to just fall into a deep depression and withdraw from life but Bader was a fighter and nothing, absolutely nothing, could put that man down or stop him. And he was a passionate pilot. As much as he loved his wife, we get the impression that he loved flying even more.

A story like this is quite inspiring but that wouldn’t make this a great movie. What makes it great is the way it is told. While the first half focusses on Bader, his accident and how he learned to walk again, the second half focusses on WWII, the Battle of Britain, the dog fights… It’s quite suspenseful and interesting. It’s not easy for Bader to be accepted at first. The young pilots are a bit taken aback when they find out their wing commander has no legs.

I wasn’t familiar with the main actors Kenneth Moore and the lovely Muriel Pavlow but they were both really good.

It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII, the Battle of Britain and true stories about resilience and overcoming a tragedy.

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

Habermann (2010)

The German/Czech/Austrian co production Habermann tells a chapter of German history which is easily forgotten. The movie is based on a true story and tries to exemplify the destiny of the Germans living in Sudetenland. This is one of those movies which touch on a historical fact which is so painfully absurd in its arbitrariness one can hardly believe it.

Habermann is a rich mill owner in Sudetenland. The tragedy of the Sudetenland was that it belonged to Czechoslovakia before the war but almost 90% of the people living there were Germans. When Germany decided to annex the Sudetenland in 1938 this posed a huge problem to people like Habermann who lived peacefully with the Czechs. Habermann’s best friend is a Czech (Karel Roden), many of his mill workers, his accountant and other people in important positions are Czechs. Being so friendly with the Czechs makes him look suspicious to the German authorities who take up residence in the small village in which he lives. When the despotic and sadistic Sturmbannführer Karl Koslowski (Ben Becker) arrives in the village, things go from bad to worse. He wants Habermann to get rid of the Czech workers, spies on him and the Czechs, bullies and controls him.

But the worst isn’t even known to Habermann and his wife yet. Although she grew up as an orphan and was  brought up by Catholic nuns, her father was a Jew. When Koslowski finds out, the tragedy cannot be averted.

Another dramatic story line circles around Habermann’s young brother you joins the Nazi’s.

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie and the story of the Sudeten Germans is a story which needed telling. The real tragedy for most only started after Germany lost the war and the Czechs turned against them. This drama is shown well but what I didn’t find too good is that there is too much emphasis on the character of Koslowski. Ben Becker is one of my favourite actors and I watch every movie he’s in. I think he is simply brilliant but he is also the type of character who just crushes everyone around him. He is often chosen to play a nasty Nazi villain and does that well, only giving him this role, putting so much emphasis on this characters, almost makes you think that the whole tragedy was linked to this one man while this was a collective tragedy and not just related to one sadistic character.

Still overall I think Habermann is well done, not one of the best but a very watchable movie and the actors, Ben Becker, Karl Roden, Mark Waschke as Habermann, Hannah Herzsprung as his wife, are really good.

The Lost Battalion (2001) WWI TV Remake

The Lost Battalion is a US made for TV movie based on a true story that happened during the last weeks of WWI. It’s seems to be a remake of the 1919 movie The Lost Battalion. I haven’t seen the film from 1919, so cannot comment on how well it’s been remade.

Set in 1918 The Lost Battalion tells the story of the 77th American division which got caught behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest, in France. Major Whittlesey is assigned one of those incomprehensible suicide missions of which there were so many during WWI. Together with 500 men he is to attack the German forces in the Argonne Forest. Additional forces are sent out to give support through the flanks but before even arriving on the assigned post, they retreat.

Out of a sense of duty Major Whittlesey and his men hold out despite the fact that they have no food, no water, no ammunition. The siege lasts 5 days and costs the life of 300 men. Most of the men are from New York, they are Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants which, according to Whittlesey, contributed to the success as they are known to be reckless fighters.

I know this is a movie that quite a lot of people like but I must honestly say, I found it quite boring. It’s combat intense and seems quite accurate but the story isn’t told in a very suspenseful way. There are no outstanding characters either. It has a few additional flaws which I’ve noticed in other TV productions and which bothered me after a while. The wounds look garish instead of horrible wounds because the color of the blood is an intense orange. The acting was average but not too painful.

Still, I suppose it’s a worthy effort as we don’t see a lot of WWI infantry combat movies from a US perspective and according to the film this battle helped break through the German lines and ultimately was a key factor in ending the war. That certainly deserved to be told. If accuracy is the most important thing for you, don’t miss it. I prefer a well-told or interestingly filmed story.