24 March 2013

Two for One: 0:30 and Won't Back Down

Over a year ago I posted my thoughts about two movies we'd watched in two days. Well, we did it again and went on another DVD jag on Thursday and Friday seeing the just-released Zero Dark Thirty and an earlier 2012 film, Won't Back Down. Even though drawn from historical facts, both were typical genre pieces, action-thriller and a David vs. Goliath triumph over "the system." Both were well done but Zero Dark Thirty was a bit of a disappointment while Won't Back Down exceeded my expectations.

With its Academy Award nominations, political implications, and "ripped-from-the-headlines" subject matter, Zero Dark Thirty could hardly disappoint an American audience. We knew the end of the story but watching how it came to be reinforced the message that great operational success is usually the result of long, hard, and tedious preparations. Choosing to focus on the work of CIA analyst "Maya" to structure the central narrative was a neat trick but disappointed those who wanted to watch more of the operational details of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Of course, by choosing to emphasize the manhunt back-story, the film put the question of the legitimacy of enhanced interrogation techniques front and center, which irked Senator John McCain (nothing wrong with that).

Nonetheless, I suspect that the portrayal of Maya's interactions with her Station Chief in Pakistan and with CIA director Leon Panetta were greatly overwrought. Maybe I'm wrong but I can't imagine even passionate analysts being that aggressive with their superiors.

Even more, Zero Dark Thirty feeds the American individualistic approach to the world. While entirely justified, the killing of Osama bin Laden hasn't helped with the "War on Terror" (whatever exactly that is). From individual citizens to America's political (and, perhaps, intelligence and military) leadership, dealing with terrorists is perceived like WWII where we fought two discrete enemies that could be defeated on the battlefield and replaced with functioning law-centered States. Across the almost all of the Middle East as well as much Central and South Asia, the centrality of tribal loyalty holds far more significance than the barely-functioning nation states of those regions. What Westerners conceive as rational means to the end of ever-greater material indulgence and sexual autonomy doesn't characterize the approach to life of much of the world. Toppling evil dictators doesn't make the world safe for an American way of life that many despise and Zero Dark Thirty does nothing to wake us to that reality.

For those who remember, Won't Back Down is the reverse of Sally Field's Norma Rae. Won't Back Down's screenplay even refers to Norma Rae without seeming forced. Like Zero Dark Thirty, Won't Back Down is a typical American "feel-good" movie, albeit without the bad language. Against all odds a disgruntled parent and reinvigorated teacher manage to wrest control of a failing local school from its incompetent administrator and entrenched teachers union. Only in the recent past could film holding up a public service workers union to scathing criticism have made it to the big screen. Even so, union-inspired boycott efforts may have impacted its box office receipts, which were modest at best.

The film was well done and inspiring and not too treacly but again suggests that the all-too-common dehumanizing  and incompetent statist education systems in American can be fixed by two plucky individuals. The problems with our educational "system" runs far deeper and can be addressed by more extensive disestablishment and reformulation by communities of committed persons.

Two films, each good in its way. And while neither is great, both can be watched with enjoyment and, more importantly, discernment.

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