When I got the assignment to interview Édgar Ramírez for his small but key role in Zero Dark Thirty, I jumped at the chance. I respected this actor immensely for what he brought to the title character of Carlos the Jackal in the miniseries Carlos (2011). I caught that film as a marathon cinematic five-and-a-half-hour experience at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. I came for the filmmaking of Olivier Assayas but was blown away by the performance by Ramírez.
Though an hour late to start, the low-key but charming Ramírez made the resulting round table interview with a group of five other local journalists a pleasure. The resulting piece was published early yesterday morning for the “Miami New Times” Arts and Entertainment blog “Cultist.” I think the story I wrote up captures the subtle intelligence and charm of this talented man. Read it by jumping though the blog’s logo here:
Of course, plenty more information was covered, so allow this blog post to stand as a supplement to the above piece. I was interested in the working relationship between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, as much has been about the writer’s constant presence on the set (here’s a great “Hollywood Reporter” article about it).
“He was always around,” Ramírez confirmed of Boal. “He’s very involved. It was a huge privilege to have the writer there, in case we needed to change something, in case a line was not working. Then, you could always discuss it with the writer, so it’s always very helpful, and you don’t get that privilege very often to have the writer on set. For me, it was very helpful also because it was a very fast-changing situation, and also because of the location we were at, the tension that was there because of the stakes, then we had to change and re-shape things as we were shooting, so it was great to have that.”
Ramírez also noted Boal’s producer credit, a rare thing for a writer to achieve in a Hollywood picture. However, Ramírez said, Bigelow had a firm hand on the visual elements and working with actors. “She’s directing. She’s directing the movie. She’s directing the actors, and Mark is there to support as a producer and to support as a writer when we needed him for something … There are certain things that look great on paper, then, for some reason, they don’t get to fully work on a scene, so it is great to have someone who understands, who has an overview of the whole script, who can tell you, ‘Well, this is what you should say because everything was related to something in other places of the script.’ Sometimes you can improvise things on movies, you get stuck, then you improvise, but in a movie like this, so accurate and based on firsthand accounts, you could not take the liberty of just changing one term for another.”
Another good question worth noting, which circled back to his role of playing Carlos the Jackal, is how the film handles history. He offered a very astute observation that too many take for granted while watching what is ultimately entertainment. In my review of the film (‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light) I link to an interview with Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and editor of “The Torture Papers.” She argues that history remains unclear on how fruitful torture was for crucial information in the tracking of Osama bin Laden. Yet one of the reasons the film has received so much heat for the torture scenes is that they result in the first utterance of the name Abu Ahmed, bin Laden’s courier, who ultimately leads CIA operatives, including the character Ramírez plays, to bin Laden’s hideout.
Though, again, more information can be found in the “Cultist” piece on how he felt about the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, Ramírez put the narrative into perspective: “We were recreating reality. It’s impossible to reconstruct reality. It happened once. What you do is re-interpret, you recreate, and that’s what you try to do. Even if you have the person who lived it, the person who did it next to you, that happens just once, and I know this. I’m familiar with this because of Carlos. We also had first account information, very accurate research and navigation of facts, and however, it was a work of fiction. There’s no way to imitate reality because it’s not about imitation, it’s about realization.”
So, ultimately, remember, it’s just a movie.
Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters in limited release tomorrow riding a wave of critical buzz but also controversy. Having had the opportunity to attend a preview screening early last month by the invitation of Sony Pictures, I can understand why both the hype and concern would crop up. The film opens with 20 minutes of the intense and persistent torture of a prisoner by CIA operatives that had me noting the duration of these scenes when they finally ended. Media analysts and even political figures have protested that the film endorses torture. The filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have been on the defensive ever since.
No matter what anyone says, the answer to the question in a film about linking together pieces for a greater whole, comes from one’s ability to put together the film’s components. It’s a poetic notion for this episodic film that covers 10 years of investigations that led Seal Team 6 to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. The film sets out a clear correlation to the end result with its first narrative scenes: the torture of a man called Ammar (Reda Kateb) at a “black site” in an “undisclosed location.” Secrecy and mystery abound in this film, even though everyone now knows how it ends. But it’s all about finding meaning in associations in the selective dramatization of events, from the vivid recordings of suffering and panic during the Sept. 11 attacks against a pitch black screen in place of the opening credits to the film’s final emotive shot of the its key character played by Jessica Chastain with a concentrated potency that belies a human fragility transcending gender.
The drama of this film lies in the main character’s zeal to keep alive what she believes are credible clues in the face of countering facts and doubts by everyone around her. Throughout the film, the CIA operative Maya (Chastain) tries to keep her beliefs alive by repeating her information to any doubters. The truth lies within her repetition of the importance of a courier’s name gleaned from Ammar, the man so thoroughly tortured by Maya’s PhD-holding colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) during the film’s opening scenes.
Dan is vividly established as a genius at his craft. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology,” he tells a wiped out Ammar strung up by his arms in a large, cavernous cell. Maya stands in the background throughout most of these scenes that span the gamut of all torture techniques you have ever heard about. Though Dan coolly repeats lines like “When you lie to me, I hurt you” to Ammar, Maya stands back. She recoils from the beatings, waterboarding and humiliation Ammar endures.
What Maya’s face shows is put into words by a soldier who observes Dan toying with monkeys in a cage outside another black site: “You agency guys are twisted.” In the end, as Dan predicts, Ammar breaks. It looks like kindness finally does it. Maya and Dan sit with him outside in the sun, as Ammar enjoys a meal and spits out various names. But that does not discredit any contribution of the torture prior: the beatings, the degradation and sleep deprivation all build up to the relief of this meal out of the binds. Though Maya recoiled in the early scenes of torture, she is all too eager to reap the rewards after Ammar settles down to name names, including that of the courier who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan: Abu Ahmed.
The middle of the film is all about keeping that name relevant. The names of Ahmed and bin Laden appear in subtitles during many other interrogation videos Maya watches (again, the association of torture and relevant information). However, the film also spends lots of time throwing up obstacles of relevance against that name. She is told she is “chasing a ghost” by both terror suspects and colleagues alike. Her station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tells her, “You’re fucking out of your mind.” However, while Bradley plays politics, Maya persists, even as her clues seem to crumble around her. This middle part of Zero Dark recalls David Fincher’s slippery use of clues and obsession that fueled his underrated 2007 masterpiece Zodiac. Though lives are lost and even her life winds up on the line, Chastain plays Maya with edgy stoicism throughout, earning the film’s closing shot powerfully. This mission is all the emotional attachment she needs, and in uncharacteristic Hollywood fashion, no love interest is involved. Women will love her for her power as a strong self-supporting female, and men will love her for the power she brings to statements like “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”
It all leads up to that grand finale when Maya’s information leads Seal Team 6 to the complex bin Laden has hidden away in. This is when the score of Alexandre Desplat swells up to swirling strings and the cinematography and editing takes over. Seal Team 6 becomes an extension of Maya’s fatal reach. The men are obscured by night vision goggles and heavy gear. The darkness of the scene is all shifting shadows. The distinctive voices of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton sometimes stand out, and close up views of their eyes are some of the brief glimpses of humanity in the film’s most cold and distant yet intense scene. Little terse whispers of “Khalid” and “Osama” by the soldiers lead to fatal mistakes by those hiding inside who dare to peek around corners before precision-like shots and double taps take out the near helpless targets. It’s a brilliantly choreographed and well-earned climax to a film that has earned the recognition and buzz leading up to awards season. It should be an interesting contender for Bigelow and Boal who once again prove they are a directing/writing team to contend with when it comes to intimate war films.
Zero Dark Thirty is Rated R (these are some angry people throwing angry words and acting angry) and runs 157 min. It opens in limited release in only two theaters in South Florida this Friday, Jan. 4: the AMC Aventura and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. The following Friday the film will open wide at most theaters.
March 8, 2010
Indeed, it was time for a woman to win not only Best Director but Best Picture at the Oscars® last night (the usual trend for Best Director winners, by the way). I figured that race would go to Kathryn Bigelow’s the Hurt Locker. I still believe it was a political statement by the Academy and less about the film’s quality.
Mo’Nique said it right when she won for Precious and talked about how her win was not about the politics but about her performance (she refused to cancel stand-up shows in order to campaign for votes in the Best Actress category). We already had several black actors and actresses as winners. Until we have one of these kinds of wins for a female director, this win will still be about the politics. This recognition is only the beginning for women, but there is still a long way to go, to make this win appear like something more than charity.
Granted, it was great to see an independent picture win, but all the hype surrounding the competition between Bigelow and her former ex James Cameron, was getting tiresome, and trivialized the contest. Not to mention the hype that it was time a woman director should win. It all took away form the quality of the film, which was good. But, again, still not as well crafted as Inglorious Basterds.
Of all my predictions I got wrong for the Oscars®, the only two I slipped on was the Foreign Language Film category, which was just a wild guess, as I had yet to see any of those movies in Miami. And though, I had acknowledged the stiff competition by Jeff Bridges, I sort of waffled on my decision for George Clooney to win over Bridges, so I at least got that one half wrong. Otherwise, the Oscars® went quite predictably for my tastes.
Read the full list of 2009 Oscar® winners by visiting the Academy Awards’ official website here.
March 2, 2010
Since I have been asked, I shall use this blog entry offer my Oscar® picks and predictions. Though I have hardly ever given them any credit for furthering my appreciation of cinema, it’s been a fun game to predict, which goes way beyond the quality of filmmaking and into the art of politicking.
Last week, we had the BAFTAs (the British equivalent to the Academy awards). It was nice to see Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, win an award for Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer. I happened to have recommended his short film “Whistle” for programming at the Miami Film Festival a few years ago. I am very happy to see him get that award. Moon was an amazing addition to the thinking man’s science fiction cannon, plus he is a real down-to-Earth guy for a guy with his head snuggly in the sci-fi world.
But more revealing was how the Hurt Locker swept up so many major awards at the BAFTAs, beating out Avatar in several categories, including Best Film and Best Director, and casting a shadow over the awards it lost to Avatar at the Golden Globes. That said, I think it portends good things for Hurt Locker at the Oscars this weekend, but, for my tastes, Inglorious Basterds is the stronger film.
Well, here is the first half at my look of the picks, mainly the competition trying to beat the favored Hurt Locker. The second half of this post will appear tomorrow and focus on the acting categories.
Avatar (James Cameron)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
Precious (Lee Daniels)
Who will win: It’s about time a woman director won an Oscar ®, and Bigelow has ironically produced a strong testosterone-fueled movie that also offers some deep insight into the kind of person war creates. This film could win it for her. Plus, our society has increasingly grown concerned about equating injustices against those in groups whose rights have been historically tread upon for centuries, which adds to her chances.
Who I think should win: Tarantino. If this category were not so overshadowed by the battle of the exes (Cameron and Bigelow were once married) and was truly about the craftiness of the director, Tarantino should get it.
Writing (adapted screenplay)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
An Education (Nick Hornby)
Precious (Geoffrey Fletcher)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner)
In the Loop (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche)
Who will win: These are some real nice, varied nominees, though, again, I’m too behind in my movie viewing to fairly guess. If I had to go on the politics that drives this awards show, I’d say the only contenders here are Up in the Air and Precious. Both are the serious movies here. Up in the Air has something to say about the state of today’s day and age thanks to the messed up economy. But Precious is also a powerful comment on the constant of society, those people typically ignored as damaged goods in today’s day and age.
Who I think should win: I think because of the latter’s perspective I just offered, I think not only will Precious win this category but also deserves it.
Writing (original screenplay)
The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Up (Pete Docter and Bob Petersen)
The Messenger (Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman)
Who will win: Hurt Locker has not only won awards for Bigelow’s work but also for Boal, a journalist once imbedded with troops in Iraq. The momentum behind this movie will certainly see it through to the Oscars®.
Who I think should win: Yes, Tarantino, who has done some amazing ballet with words throughout his career. Basterds is no exception. The opening scene of the movie itself was an amazing exercise of suspense through dialogue.
Animated feature film
Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker)
Coraline (Henry Selick)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)
Who will win: Seriously, how many Academy members even heard of the Secret of Kells much less saw in its brief run designed to have it qualify for this category. Coraline is too far in voters’ memory (I thought it was released in 2008, when I tried to think back on my favorite movies of 2009). Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably to odd a film for most to swallow, often the predicament of Anderson’s movies. The Princess and the Frog is old Disney, and comes from a different era (hence its failure at the box office, proving audiences have moved on to 3-D computer-animated films). That means Up will undoubtedly win this category.
Who I think should win: Up deserves it. It is a strong, simple and emotional story, which happens to unfold in an animated 3D world. However, I do happen to think Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stronger film, due to its complex story and whimsical delivery, which does not lean on sentimentality for its emotional tug, unlike Up. Still, if either one wins, I’d be happy, but I’m secretly rooting for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Foreign language film
Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Israel)
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France)
The Secret of Her Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, Argentina)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany)
The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru)
Who will win: Being stuck in Miami, foreign movies have to work hard to play at movie theaters here. None of these have even played our few art houses here. I can only guess Haneke will win for being overlooked so long by the Academy.
Who I think should win: I cannot fairly even guess. I have heard some great things about several of these films and look forward to checking them out, beyond the Oscars ® hype.
Avatar (James Cameron and Jon Landau, producers)
District 9 (Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, producers)
An Education (Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, producers)
The Hurt Locker (nominees to be determined)
Inglourious Basterds (Lawrence Bender, producer)
Precious (Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, producers)
A Serious Man (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, producers)
Up in the Air (Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, producers)
The Blind Side (nominees to be determined)
Up (Jonas Rivera, producer)
Who will win: OK, first off, let’s pretend this renewed idea of 10 nominees in this category never happened. If that were the case, the only films up here would look like this:
The Hurt Locker
The Blind Side
Up in the Air
Yeah, no Avatar. It’s just too much of a technical showpiece. It’s all about the technology used to make the movie, the 3-D aspect and the box office, superficial elements that do no make a classic film. That would also null the contest between the ex’s James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, and her movie would win, making her also the first female director to get the statuette for Best Picture, as she was during the BAFTAs, a tidbit helping to hype her movie, which has enjoyed buzz all year long.
Who I think should win: No doubt about it, in my opinion, Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino is a master filmmaker, and he has shown it again and again since his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, Bigelow’s catalog is much more suspect, filled with too many superficial action flicks like Point Break and Strange Days, which have not aged as well as Tarantino’s work. His latest work was relentless in its pace thanks to its camera work, writing, editing and the performance he elicited from his actors, an all around master work deserving attention on its own merits, not the hype that surrounds Hurt Locker, which was a strong movie, but not the masterwork of film craftsmanship that was Inglourious Basterds.
So what do you think? Am I wrong for loving Inglorious Basterds so much? Beyond the hype, does Bigelow deserve the awards, which I have no doubt she will win?