Sunday, January 27, 2013

Maya of Arabia

What's bugging me about the Zero Dark Thirty controversy is how it has blocked any discussion of the movie's place in film history.  I'm not sure if this is the result of sexism, as if Kathryn Bigelow wouldn't be thinking in those terms, or just political sensitivities (my friends to the left are the ones condemning the film by comparing it to the work of Leni Riefenstahl - an incredibly sexist comparison) but when looked at within the context of Hollywood genre's, ZDT is the increasingly rare beast of an historical epic, at a time when every so-called-epic from Hollywood is a science fiction or superhero story.  The last great historical epic was, of course, Titanic, interestingly enough made by Bigelow's former husband.

Where ZDT fits is as the bookend to Lawrence of Arabia.  Each movie deals with the West's involvement with Middle Eastern politics, one from the start in the 20th Century, the other for the 21st.  Back then it's one British officer struggling through the desert, now it's batteries of U.S. soldiers flying in and out with impunity, but it both cases there's the sense of "other," that the West can never, no matter how embedded, truly understand or have a place in the desert worlds.  The threats to Maya's life are essentially urban - an assassination attempt rather than dying of thirst - but there's watching still the lone figure coming from a great distance (a fateful car rather than Omar Sharif), the hero putting on the local headgear to operate in the area, the lonely military outposts in a hostile land.

The question isn't whether the movie endorses torture, it's "Where do you want to go?" which Chastain outed on The Daily Show as the existential last line of the movie.  In Lawrence, a man is driven insane by his immersion into this Middle Eastern world.  In ZDT it's a nation (with Maya as the metaphor).  Lawrence posits that his Western influence helped create the desert nations.  ZDT asks if and how we want to be engaged with these very same nations - if, in another twist on the same theme in Lawrence, there a brutalization like torture involved.

ZDT's immediacy is blinding the arguers to the true nature (and greatness) of this movie.  Sorry, Bigelow and Boal didn't wait thirty years to tell this huge story.  They were brave enough -- and smart enough -- to tell a nine-year epic tale just moments after it concluded.

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