imagesAmerican teenagers still get marched through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) early in their high school careers, told that it’s a classic. I hadn’t read it since then, so it was a revelation during the past few weeks to find how much I remembered its contemplative mood. Gatsby is still as inscrutable, and Daisy as shadowy as I remember. It’s a beautiful, evasive book punctuated with moments of the most beautiful prose and clarity of insight — all the better for being so slim and accessible to high school kids.

Told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Midwesterner whose job selling bonds has landed him a house out on the shores of Long Island Sound, the story fixates on Carraway’s fantastically wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Rumors fly about him: he might be an Oxford man, or a murderer, or perhaps just a liar. As if to cultivate those tales, Gatsby throws lavish parties and uses oddly unpopular expressions like “old sport.” But as we learn early on, part of this is a show for the benefit of Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan, who lives with her lout of a husband across a small bay. Daisy and Gatsby had a short romance years ago when he was a poor serviceman stationed in her hometown of St. Louis. Famously — memorably — Gatsby stands at the edge of his property in the evenings, gazing out across the water to the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ pier, longing for her and hoping that his new wealth and status might be enough to win her back. The-Great-Gatsby-thumb-560xauto-25948

Jack Clayton’s 1974 film with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston emphasized the gauzy, sun-lit aspects of the tale, and the grandeur of Gatsby’s house, but critics generally felt the film was better at conveying the surface appearance of the tale than the book’s melancholy soul. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby famously complained that “the sets and costumes and most of the performances are exceptionally good, but the movie itself is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.” It may have got the 1920s/ Jazz Age look right, but it failed to capture the classic Americanness of this story.

All the more reason for a new interpretation. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire in the three core roles, does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated film achieve what Clayton’s could not? I sat down for a chat about the film with film critic and blogger JustMeMike, with whom I’ve analyzed films in the past — most recently Zero Dark Thirty.

JMM: Great question, Didion. Upon publication in 1925, the book sales were tepid: about 20,000 copies sold in the 1st year following publication. In contrast, the book has sold about 405,000 copies in the first three months of this year. And that number would not include the copy I bought late in April, after not being able to acquire one from my nearest public library.

But before we launch into a discussion of the film, I’d like to point out that the cost of this film was in the West Eggish neighborhood of $127 million. One would have to be quite creative to spend that much money on a movie. And just think of the clothing and accessories tie-ins with Prada, Tiffany & Co, and Brooks Brothers. I don’t think I’ll be trotting off to Brooks Brothers to pick up a straw boater at $198 a pop. How about you? Will you be going in for the 1920s look?

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Didion: As long as I can score a new tiara, I’ll be all set. You know how us professors get paid so lavishly that a visit to Tiffany is, like, yawn.

So I’m curious, JMM — tell me your thoughts about the relationship between book and film. Obviously, literary adaptations are always tricky; directors want to make films that anyone can see, from big fans of the book to those who’ve never read it. Do you think Luhrmann succeeds?

JMM: Yes, he succeeds. As you said above, Gatsby is inscrutable which to me means that it is subject to many interpretations — almost as many as the number of bits of confetti and streamers that fell during the Gatsby soirees.

I think the transfer of the literary to the screen was well done. Especially if you consider that the charm of the book is less the story, and more the excellence of the writing.

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Didion: I agree with you in part. I felt Luhrmann succeeded with the overall look and the vividness of the characters — no one is going to say, as Canby did about the previous version, that this is lifeless — but I disliked the hyperactive melodrama of the film. It missed, to me, the book’s soul: its narrator’s desire for something real behind all that glitz.

JMM: Yeah. In the film, the Carraway character was either in awe or watching with stunned amazement — or twirling a glass in his hand — but isn’t that what makes the book so difficult to film? The charms of Nick are all his internal discoveries rather than something he actually does?

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Didion: That’s exactly right. Nick wants to believe that Gatsby really is “worth the whole damn bunch altogether,” as he shouts to Gatsby across the lawn. But the film doesn’t quite show us that Gatsby is anything more than an imperfect invention. Luhrmann couldn’t quite commit: are we supposed to attach to Gatsby? or are we supposed to see through him, and thus become aware of Nick’s naivete?

JMM: That’s a tough question. The story opens with Gatsby as a mythic person; no one knew his reality. Including Nick who befriends him. Didn’t Lurhmann (and Fitzgerald) go out of their way to make Gatsby mysterious as well as the subject of gossip? If so, can we call Carraway naive?

Didion: I suppose this is what makes the book so endlessly appealing to high school English classrooms! It allows kids to scrutinize the difference between surface appearance and the person within.

One of the things I loved about the book was Nick’s voice throughout: his eagerness to believe that Gatsby and Daisy really felt a true love for one another. Nick is the only character who wants to reveal his true self, and to believe that Gatsby is truly good on the inside, even when the whole crowd lies, hides things, and/or reveals their untrustworthiness. So I’m disappointed by the over-the-top emotional melodrama that Luhrmann laid on top of everything. Luhrmann’s style worked so well for me in capturing the excesses of the 1920s, but just fell down utterly when making me care about the characters — Tobey Maguire’s Nick included.

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JMM: Well I will certainly agree about Gatsby being good. His problem was that he was a dreamer who couldn’t let go of the past. Daisy — not so good. Tom Buchanan not good at all. But Maguire’s Carraway is more of a Greek chorus, a chronicler, a reality mirror to Jay Gatsby’s unreality. Was it Maguire’s dull characterization of Carraway, or was it the script, or simply the way that Lurhmann directed? I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that I was quite involved with the melodramatic last two-thirds of the film, much more so than during the razzle-dazzle first third.

Didion: Really?!? Well, this might be our most substantial disagreement! I loved the film’s big middle — its second act — but the final act had me rolling my eyes.

You clearly didn’t like Maguire as Nick. I’m more on the fence. What better actor alive could capture that innocence, and the pleasure of entering into the excesses of the super-rich of the 1920s? I was less interested in the way that Luhrmann created a frame for the film — Nick, months later, installed in an asylum for nervous exhaustion and alcoholism, trying to capture the causes of his illness for a psychologist. Maguire was neither very good in those scenes, nor did the director use them in a way to compel the audience’s connection to the character.

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I will say that Luhrmann’s casting was great. Every single character looked the part — I mean, damn, Carey Mulligan! Elizabeth Debicki as the golfer/socialite Jordan Baker! and even that shiny, tanned, and slightly creepy face of DiCaprio’s as Gatsby — it all looked exactly right.

JMM: Loved the casting myself. Except that I didn’t buy that Tom Buchanan and Carraway were classmates. Meaning Edgerton and Maguire looked about 10 years different. Maybe it is less about Maguire’s performance that gave me cause for concern. I’ll refer back to the statement I made earlier about Carraway’s charms being internal.

The framing device worked for me because it gave them a way of getting the words on the screen. Whether the sanatorium aspect was good or bad isn’t a major point for me.

But back to the casting. Many have said that Leo was a bit too old for the role. Maybe. But his tan and his weathered look come from his lifestyle and stress. I liked the way Leo brought out Gatsby’s loss of confidence when he first meets (re-unites) with Daisy in the Carraway cottage. And her fluttered look perfectly matched his.

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Didion: Argh! I hated that scene! It didn’t work for me AT ALL. It was all so overdone … like a kabuki version of anxiety. And all the extended leadup to the actual meeting between Gatsby and Daisy — it went on forever — took away from what the scene should have done, which is to cement in Nick’s mind that these two share perfect, long-lost love.

JMM: Well I’ll agree to disagree. But that came from the book didn’t it? Gatsby leaving, going outside and standing in the rain until he was drenched. Beyond that, that scene had the one laugh-out-loud moment in the whole film. When Gatsby asks, Is everything okay, You have all you need for the tea? And Nick replies, “Well maybe more flowers….”

I also wonder about the “cementing”. Is it is Nick’s mind or ours?

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Didion: Certainly in Nick’s mind, but isn’t that anchored to our minds as viewers? Don’t we need to believe, even for a moment, that Gatsby and Daisy aren’t just glossy pretty people, but truly in love — even if the film later throws some of that open to question?

That’s why I found the scene so needlessly goofy. I wanted it to show another side of Gatsby; to show that he wasn’t all self-assurance and polish. But this scene went for cheap laughs rather than more depth to his character. It made me think that Luhrmann is, above all, just a ham-handed director who can’t manage a single minute of emotional subtlety.

JMM: About Lurhmann, I won’t disagree with ham-handed. I won’t disagree with lacks subtlety — but I must give him props for showmanship, hype, and marketing — care to venture down that road for a bit?

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Isla Fisher as the blowsy Myrtle

Didion: I’m completely down with you there. Which brings up another topic: the soundtrack, and especially the confluence of musical genres in the film (dotted with hip hop by Jay-Z, who also served as executive producer for the soundtrack).

The scenes of crazy parties are just awesome. No subtlety needed. And although I was a little taken aback when the Jay-Z’s song “100$ Bill” blasted underneath those scenes — because I love 1920s music and hoped to hear more of it — I ultimately loved the whole thing. The music also includes new interpretations of 1920s songs as well as covers of Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, and others, altogether creating the most lush soundtrack I’ve heard in years. Loved it. And I was so glad to see those great party scenes on the big screen.

JMM: Yes the music worked for me too. I think the press has made far too much of the inclusion of hip hop, but coming out of the theater I only remembered two pieces of music — Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” which was Daisy’s theme, and the famed Gershwin opus “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The party music was great — and would have been pleasurable no matter what.

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Didion: Can I ask you about Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy for a moment, and in general the film’s view of women? I thought she was wonderful, of course — but we never learn much more about her. She functions more as a figment of Gatsby’s imagination than as a real, three-dimensional person. Let’s not forget how utterly absent her daughter is from the story. One of the things that affected me was Daisy’s comment that she hopes her daughter grows up to be “a beautiful little fool,” because a fool is “the best thing a girl can be in this world.”

JMM: Great thinking Didion. I’m with you completely. It is a scary part of the story. It is one thing for Daisy to be like that, and she was, and another thing for her to wish that for her little girl. Realistically, I think all the female characters came off badly in the book — even Jordan. But as we can see from both the book and the film, there are no likeable characters. Daisy was all surface, she not only hadn’t any depth, but I think we were supposed to see that immediately.

When we first meet Daisy and Jordan, Fitzgerald describes them like having the weight and substance of balloons. They flutter and quiver and so forth. Fitzgerald made it a point to make them lacking substance.

“They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”

Didion: Oh, JMM, I love that catch — I’d forgotten that beautiful description in the book. Fitzgerald had little interest in giving them much weight. In fact, that line of Daisy’s about her daughter being a fool is the only glimpse we have of her dissatisfaction with her lot; otherwise she appears committed to being a fool, mostly at least.

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Jordan is a bit more interesting; the book suggests that she might not be such an honest sportswoman. And in the film Elizabeth Debicki’s huge eyes and tall dancer’s frame make her tower over Tobey Maguire in a way that was always mysterious and evocative. But this isn’t really a film about female characters except as love objects for the men in the story.

JMM:  True. Let’s move to another smaller venue — the underground club behind the barbershop door where they went for lunch. Did you like Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim, or did you feel this was a role incorrectly cast?

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Didion: Loved the speakeasy scene, and Bachchan was perfectly cast as Wolfsheim — but (and this is a big but) Lurhmann cut out most of what made Wolfsheim such a crucial character.

Now, there are good reasons to cut it out: the book is unapologetically anti-Semitic, and racist in ways that only get a slight gloss in the film. On reflection, I’m not sorry that Luhrmann decided to cut down the book’s nasty white supremacy and the cartoonish portrayal of Wolfsheim as Gatsby’s main man.

So Bachchan doesn’t get much of a chance here, but his whole appearance — his unnervingly sparkling eyes — was ideal for the part. How about you?

JMM: I’ve seen many films with Bachchan and I knew what I was going to get from him. I think Lurhmann cast him as Wolfsheim because it would help market the film internationally — and also because who else might have been considered — Mandy Patinkin?

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As for the racist and anti-Semitic remarks — I thought there were plenty of them included in the film to make the point, so even if Lurhmann cut back volume wise — he didn’t soft-pedal those topics in any way.

Another point — didn’t they include enough mysterious phone calls to have us consider that Gatsby was indeed involved in shady doings. And then once they’ve done this, who do we meet at the parties but NY celebs, senators, congressmen, and even the police commissioner was at the speakeasy — so I don’t think Wolfsheim needed any more depth on screen for us to see.

Didion: So this brings me to my last question: about the film’s use of 3D. Even though I’d sworn to myself that I’d skip seeing the 3D versions of film (after Tintin, which was meh), I nevertheless forked out the extra few bucks this time. And… big disappointment.

Now, I get it that Luhrmann’s filming ethos is summed up with, “why not?” But I think the 3D not only failed to add anything, particularly during the lush party scenes, but it detracted for me from the attractiveness of the set and costumes overall. I’d strongly recommend that people see it in 2D.

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JMM: The 3D was added in not because of “why not” but because of the revenue stream. This was strictly a marketing decision and a gimmick. As you said if anything it was unnecessary at best, and a distraction at worst. The difference between the 2D ticket and the 3D at my theater was $5. So I think that was behind it.

As was the music. As was Bachchan.

I’ve a question: Do you have a favorite quote from the book/film?

Didion: I’ve been thinking about that. And honestly, I must admit that it’s not the beautiful famous final line of the novel, which Lurhmann uses here (to his credit): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A gorgeous line, but so self-conscious.

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I had a whole pile of lines I loved in the book — they appear only occasionally in the midst of Fitzgerald’s generally sparse prose. But I think my favorite might be, “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

JMM: That is a line filled with beautiful imagery. The one I liked best came on the next to last page. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Of course that is why we love the book. About the book and the film version — a thematic question — Lurhmann’s showed this at least three times. — workers with pick-axes working on the mounds of ashes. Is this indicative of a heaven (the palaces and mansions and the party-life) and indicative of a hellish existence — real life with work and sweat? I mean is this at the core of the story, or is it the more surfacey — the old money versus the new money that is one of the base themes? Any thoughts on that?

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Didion: Loved the way he created the old optician’s billboard, of a god/death watching over this hellish middle place of sweat and hard work. But the scenes of workmen toiling just seemed, again, like a cartoonish Broadway set.

Your broader question still troubles me. Does the film do enough to satisfy me in capturing the snobbery of old-money types like Tom Buchanan? And the striving desire of new-money types like Gatsby for a glamorous object like old-money Daisy, whose voice “sounds like money”? No, but then our culture is much less concerned about old money than theirs was. I was also a little disappointed that the film didn’t make much of the divide between East Coast society and the Midwesterners (Nick, Daisy, Gatsby) who have arrived there — that is, arrived from a more innocent place.

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JMM: Maybe because in the 20s there was so little new money, and the old money wasn’t that old. Tom was a Midwestern guy too. I also recall that Daisy’s mother, at the party, told Daisy about all the “eligible” soldiers attending — rather than the number of good looking men. So even though that party wasn’t an East Coast affair — it still had its own version of snobbery.

I believe that Lurhmann could not do too much with the old money vs. new money because there weren’t any characters (except Tom and Daisy) to represent it with any kind if depth.

Didion: One of my Facebook friends said recently, with a bit of self-deprecation, that she loves anything Luhrmann does because it’s so pretty and shiny. “It’s art, not history!” she proclaimed to haters like me.

If I were to sum up my feelings about the film, I’d say that Luhrmann’s gift for creating shiny, pretty things is prodigious but ultimately I want more emotional depth. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen for those amazing party sequences, but I will never see it again.GG-29869R-600x313

JMM: Strong words, Didion! I want to ask for a one word description of how you felt when leaving the theater.

Didion:  Honestly, I felt a bit alienated by the film. Part of this is appropriate — that is, we’re supposed to be appalled by Tom and Daisy’s carelessness toward everyone around them. But neither did I feel especially upset by Gatsby’s end; I just hadn’t learned to care about him the way I ought to have. Although I appreciated Lurhmann’s eagerness to show us Fitzgerald’s fine prose — appearing as actual words on the screen — that final line about “boats against the current” remains opaque enough to me that I’m still not sure I know how to feel about it. So yeah, “alienated.”

How about you?

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JMM: For me, I think a phrase rather than one word — and it goes back to Gatsby’s delusional behavior. Despite his lack of a reality — I still loved him — hated the Buchanans. Gatsby was a mystery — the Buchanan’s weren’t. So it is far easier for me to admire Gatsby than them. But having said that, I won’t call him heroic or anything like that. And yes, his ending isn’t anything that creates despair in me either. When I left the theater, I was positive about the film.

Didion: Can I ask whether you like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001)? Because I’m wondering whether this film will appeal more broadly than to the longtime Luhrmann fans who love his “shiny, pretty” things.

JMM: Thought you’d never ask. As for Moulin Rouge, I could only get 30 minutes into it before shutting down my DVD player. Gatsby wasn’t like that for me because I had just read the book. Moulin Rouge had no history for me — other than my travels to Paris. But I never finished it. I’m not a fan of Luhrmann’s but I do appreciate his skills. Or maybe I’ll say that Luhrmann can certainly spend money and make a fabulous looking recreation of another era.

I have Luhrmann’s Australia still unwatched. Guess I’ll be getting to that one soon.

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But you know, The Great Gatsby is still an iconic American novel — so I do expect another film version down the road.

Didion: That made me laugh, because I watched maybe 20 minutes of Moulin Rouge before quitting, too! All that overwrought singing and Ewan MacGregor and Nicole Kidman looking at one another like speed freaks … not for me. I will say that this film is just not nearly that spastic.

It’s been a million years since I saw his Romeo + Juliet, which I liked at the time. I will never, ever, ever watch Australia, however.

JMM: And I’ll probably never watch Romeo + Juliet.

Didion: JMM, this has been a pleasure as ever. Even more so because I got to comb over some of the best prose in the book, and engage in the back-and-forth with such a worthy collaborator. Even though I’m more negative about the film than you are, I’m still glad I saw Luhrmann’s version of the Jazz Age onscreen. And I’m looking forward to planning another conversation with you sometime this summer!

JMM: Thank you Didion: It is always fun to work with you. I can safely guarantee that our next viewing won’t be a Luhrmann film. Until the next time — thanks!

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When film blogger JustMeMike and I agreed back in November to have a conversation about Zero Dark Thirty (which we’ll abbreviate to ZD30 for ease – and which is, of course, the dramatic tale of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden), I had no idea that it would receive as many raves, nor so many political criticisms.Jessica-Chastain-in-Zero-Dark-Thirty-2012

My main concern (which I voiced to JMM beforehand): that I’d be disappointed by Kathryn Bigelow’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won Best Picture and Best Director prizes at the 2009 Academy Awards.

High expectations, attacks from both sides of the political spectrum (from the left over the film’s depiction of torture; from the right over whether the filmmakers gained access to state secrets), and then the Academy failed to nominate Bigelow for Best Director this year – how does one watch a film fairly given all this chatter?

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No worries about spoilers for the first half of this long conversation – we’ll warn you when we switch over to spoiling big plot points.

JMM: Hi Didion. I’ve been really looking forward to this just as you have. So let’s get this thing going. You mentioned that you were afraid that your expectations for ZD30 were high. Now that we’ve both seen the film, I’ll lay my cards on the table first to say that I was not disappointed at all. Just the opposite — I felt the film was great. What about you?

Didion: I so agree with you. I left the theater in tears, due to a rush of conflicting emotions. I can’t quite believe Bigelow was able to convey these so effectively. I think it’s a really major film — better than anything I’ve seen this year.

Yes: fear of high expectations due to the threat of disappointment. But I’d also read relatively little about the film itself beforehand, so I didn’t realize quite where it would take me.

Can I just start by saying that the opening 1-2 minutes of the film were possibly the most amazing way to get a film started?

JMM: You mean the WTC audio?

Didion: Yes!

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JMM: The WTC voices over a blank screen led to a CIA black site was a seriously affecting jump. Especially since we have no idea of what we will see. Were you amazed because of the unexpected transition or just the impact of the voices taking us back to 9/11?

Didion: Yes: what was so amazing for me made me relive a bit of 9/11. The voices we hear are not ones we heard that day. But you find yourself lost in thought, remembering where you were. And, hence (in my case at least), realizing the extent to which that one day caused a cultural trauma for so many of us. It put me in mind of sitting in a room at school where someone had set up a TV from the A/V room so we could gather and watch the events unfolding. Surrounded by my colleagues and students, all helplessly watching something unthinkable. And then I went home and didn’t stop crying for, what, 24 hours? 48 hours? a week? two weeks?

Now, I don’t quite know how Bigelow knew to do this, or knew how it might affect people in theaters. Or how she chose the voices she did. But it was an amazing way to frame this film, because I think ultimately its tense action scenes are subsumed under its attempt to tell us something about the big wound we’ve all had for the last 11+ years.SUB-24ZERO-articleLarge

JMM: Some have questioned the legitimacy of using those voices — after all, someone could recognize them. I’ll leave that for others to decide. For me the framing was totally unexpected. I even wondered if this was a malfunction in the theater. You know — a gray screen — but I moved past it. As for me, I was crossing the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey, and we were able to see the smoke and flames while on board the ferry. Later we watched on TV and from our own office windows. Yes, we were helpless as well.

Didion: Yikes!

JMM: I find the comment you make about the wound we’ve lived with these many years interesting. It will never leave us — either as individuals or as a nation….

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Didion: Can I ask you something about the film as a whole that’s been debated publicly? Torture. I was prepared to arrive here today and dismiss the charge that the film advocates for torture as a means of getting information. I could certainly develop an argument that falls in line with what Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have said: that it represents the perspectives of CIA figures without endorsing those views.

But honestly, I believe the film gets as close as possible to arguing that torture leads to information — even as it also says that torture helps to procure a bunch of misleading, incorrect, and distracting information as well. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.tumblr_mbr76hqEr21qjaa1to1_1280

JMM: I think the crux of the matter about the film’s position on torture in indeed ambivalent. Those who have decried the film claim that film glorifies torture and that the film misleads by implying that torture led directly to discovery of enough information to mount the Seal Team operation. I don’t agree with that at all, and here’s why.

The first torture scene is two years after 9/11. Not much was gleaned from this particular detainee. The film hardly glorified torture because both Dan and Maya were shown to suffer from being participants, and finally the reality of the process was that it was a combination of dogged detective work which included the sifting through mountains of paperwork, intercepted phone calls, and the development of information provided by informers. That’s why the mission wasn’t mounted until 2011.

So yes, torture was a part of it — but not the only part nor the most important part.

Didion: Really nicely put, JMM. I agree with everything you’ve said; indeed, this is a film that celebrates the dogged pursuit of reasoned, intelligent analysis of masses of information. Too right.

This film also makes it clear that this work is hard on its analysts. Not just because they’re in danger while they live abroad, but because they are so determined, so single-minded, that they lose track of other things in their lives.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let's just say the end result of my research doesn't exactly seem as important.

This might as well be a scene of my office. Except let’s just say the end result of my research doesn’t exactly seem as important as Maya’s.

In saying that, I don’t want you to think this is one of those films that pathologizes Maya’s determination, or suggests she’s a pathetic example of a woman with no love interest, no family back home (a tired movie trope if ever there was one). Those things are true, but I thought the film was good at saying thank god she threw herself into her work.

JMM: She certainly did throw herself into her work. By the way, have you any reactions to the way she was perceived first by Dan, then by the CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley, and finally by the CIA Director?

Didion: Right you are to note that I am sometimes prickly about these portrayals!

The film doesn’t milk it, but it shows that her male colleagues call Maya “the girl.” They do so perhaps in part because, as played by Jessica Chastain — with her tiny frame and enormous blue eyes — she doesn’t look nearly as focused/steely as she really is. At an early point, some of her male colleagues have a conversation about her in which they wonder whether she can take it (witnessing the torture, living in hot zones like Pakistan, etc) — and the scene goes like this:

Dan: Don’t you think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?
Bradley: Washington says she’s a killer.

What does all this mean? I think Bigelow chose a frail-looking, wide-eyed actor like Chastain precisely because she’s capable of provoking conflicted emotions in people. The jolt of realizing that someone as innocent-looking as she could be relentlessly single-minded is brilliant.

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Does this jibe with you? And what did you think of Chastain more broadly in the role?

JMM: It wasn’t her physical stature — the other woman analyst, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), was a bigger woman — it was the fact that they chose this work and lived it 24/7 with such an amazing devotion to it. Some have said Maya was obsessed to the point of being psychotic, I don’t agree with that. But yes — the choice of Chastain as the focal point was not something you might have foreseen. It was a great decision, and I’ll give Boal the credit for writing the screenplay that way. From another perspective — I read that Rooney Mara was also considered — but then we would have had the same physical type (tiny woman, big eyes) anyway.

So using Chastain was definitely a major plus. Which leads to another question. Which male character did you think had the biggest impact on you?

Didion: I’d like to say one quick thing about Chastain: she didn’t always work for me. I almost feel like a traitor for saying it, because by the end of the film I saw so clearly why she was a perfect choice for the filmmakers. I believe it’s because there’s something just so jarring about her waves of great hair, no matter where she’s stationed. And there are a couple of scenes early on when I had to fight to believe she really was a CIA analyst. But as I say, by the end of the film it all worked for me.

Damn you, Chastain, and your awesome hair.

Damn you Chastain and your awesome hair.

I love your question about the most effective male character, and it’s hard for me to answer. I think it was Patrick, the squadron leader played by Joel Edgerton — from late in the film when the team finally gets permission to go ahead with the capture/kill plan. He’s the member of the squad who seems most anxious about the plan. His trepidation is so beautifully portrayed.

How about you?

JMM: Let’s back up a bit — you held Chastain’s looks against her earlier in the film? I wouldn’t have expected that from you. This very fact that she wasn’t a plain Jane with dull clothes and whatever to play down her looks seems to me that you would have objected to that….

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Didion: Not held her looks against her — that’s too strong. We’re all used to having gorgeous people in Hollywood films. But her hair was so perfect in every single scene — it stretches credulity for a woman as single-minded as she was. Especially because that particular ‘do of hers takes time. It’s a problem less with Chastain than with the hair & makeup people. (Dan’s hair, in contrast, was absolutely believable.)

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

Dan Clarke with realistic desert hair

In retrospect I think Bigelow made choices early in the film to create doubts from the audience about Maya. Can she handle a suspect being tortured? Can she get the higher-ups to buy her theories? All of this is important to see Maya’s development over the course of the film (and the many years intervening).

But as I watched those early scenes (the first hour, even?) I wasn’t sure Chastain was the right choice. This is what I meant to say.

JMM:  Okay. I have it in focus now. Staying with Chastain’s development — I think very early in the initial torture scene, Dan and Maya go out, then return but before they return, he asks her if she wants the black balaclava mask, and she says no. That established her toughness for me right then and there. But that’s not the actress — that’s the script.

Back to the male actors. Just so I know we are talking about. There’s the scene with one guy sitting on a couch and the other tossing the horseshoes. The one tossing them says, “You really believe this story?  Osama Bin Laden? Which part convinced you?” The other indicates Maya and says, “Her confidence.” Which one of those was Edgerton?

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

The marvelous, trepidatious Patrick (Joel Edgerton)

Didion: The non-horseshoe throwing guy with the trust in Maya. The horseshoe guy is Chris Pratt, who plays a real moron on Parks and Recreation — so much so, in fact, that I just couldn’t buy him as a serious character in this film. My reaction against him was so profound simply because he’s so good as a goober on TV. (He is excellent on TV, BTW.)

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

Chris Pratt, who is too good a comedian on Parks and Recreation for me to take him seriously as a SEAL

One other very tiny complaint: Bigelow stacked this film with recognizable actors. Here I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s Mark Duplass and Édgar Ramírez!”

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

No one in film can do this face like Édgar Ramírez. Mmmm.

And: “Oh, I’d forgotten James Gandolfini would be in this! Hey, that’s Elizabeth Bennet from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice!” Very tiny complaints, but it did distract me a bit. Especially because I found the discoveries of no-name actors like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker to be so wonderful.

JMM:   I recognized Mark Strong, and Duplass, Gandolfini of course — but I didn’t have a problem with them. They were identifiable actors in roles we didn’t have names for. Gandolfini was the CIA director — but I don’t think he brought anything to the role — so yes — you’re right to take Bigelow’s to task for the use of those actors.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Not Lizzie Bennet, but rather Jennifer Ehle as CIA agent Jessica.

Didion: A couple more questions before we cut to the latter part of the film (and warn people about spoilers). First, was there anything about the early part of the film that didn’t work for you?

JMM:  Not really. I went in knowing how the story would end, but not the film. Likewise I didn’t know how the film would begin — but I thought it would be a slow start and gain speed as it went on. So I won’t say that the early part didn’t work — instead I’ll say that I liked the latter parts better. Do you have something in mind that didn’t work for you early on?

Didion: Not at all. In fact, I realized after about an hour: that Bigelow has done something truly wonderful in showcasing the work of all these lower-level, on-the-ground individuals working so hard to figure out problems. To focus on them rather than the politicians or the generals isn’t just refreshing; I actually want to say it’s democratic.

Another question: which male character proved most vivid/important for you?

JMM: That’s an easy one. Has to be Jason Clark as Dan, the enhanced interrogation expert which was nothing like what he might have been doing in Langley, Second was that he ultimately decided to return to Langley, as he put it — to a “normal job.” It was good to see him make that career change. It was so difficult watching him do those things to detainees:

Can I be honest with you? I am bad news. I am not your friend. I am not going to help you. I’m going to break you.

So his character arc was very rewarding for me. In fact he was one of the few characters who really changed within the context of the film. Do you agree?Jason-Clarke-Zero-Dark-Thirty

Didion: He was great. A very appealing person — you can see how he was able to play the good guy during his interrogations but also capable of jarring brutality. I also liked the fact that you saw him age by the near-end of the film. It showed what this work does to people.

Okay, shall we switch to the film’s last hour or so? SPOILERS AHEAD!

Zero-Dark-Thirty002-730x365Once Maya gets her suspicions confirmed and the CIA commits to an operation to attack the compound in Abbottabad, the film shifts into overdrive. And I don’t mean it becomes a Tom Cruise-like action film. I thought the methodical, terrifying, and nerve-wracking preparation and detail of the compound scenes were some of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen on film. What do you think, JMM — did that work as well for you as it did for me?

JMM:  Did it work for me? Absolutely. In fact, this was easily the highlight of the film. Since we all knew the outcome of the mission, could Bigelow and Boal still make it exciting, and scary, and filled with tension and even fear? I think they easily hit a homerun with that. The fact that nearly all of the mission was viewed through the night vision goggles — gave the scene an otherworldly feel to it. The creeping around corners, or up the stairs…. We were placed in their shoes and we didn’t know who or what would behind the next doorway — this was just a brilliantly planned, conceived and executed piece of film.Zero_Dark_Thirty_-_still

What was it that you felt about it. Was it the feelings the scene created for you, or was it the technical visuals that made it work for you?

Didion: Exactly. The night vision goggles, interspersed with shots from the helicopter — absolutely gripping. But not in a typical action movie way — for maybe three big reasons, as I see it.

First, there’s a moment before the operation when one of the squadron figures (is it Patrick?) warns her that he has lost men in previous missions. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough: the film somehow manages to emphasize the real risk of the operation in a way that seems both gentle and devastating.

Second, the scenes of the entire mission are lengthy and fraught, almost as if it was done in real time. If there’s one thing Bigelow is a true master of, it’s developing a highly detailed and realistic military scenario that doesn’t glorify its characters, but rather emphasizes the true danger. Is there any other director who can do this?

And finally, when was the last time you saw a film that relegated its star to the sidelines for such a crucial sequence? I’m blown away by the fact that this entire part of the film hardly shows much of Maya at all. There’s something about the fact that she, like us, had to experience it vicariously.

I keep emphasizing that this isn’t an action movie kind of sequence. And yet perhaps I’m not quite putting that right. It made me so nervous I almost had the shakes!1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

JMM: Great point: the star is absent from the encounter. I thought so at the time but hadn’t thought of it since. Marvelous way of setting her aside and relegating her to watching it as we did.

The second point is also quite telling — in most previous Bigelow films, I also thought that action was handled not only masterfully, but also in a way that marked it as quite different that the kinds we were used to seeing..

Your first remark — about reinforcing the elements of danger and high risk — Bigelow outfoxed me on that one too. I expected a shooting casualty — not that a whole chopper would go down.

I wondered about the final accounting of the body. We knew from the news reports and Pentagon briefings that the body had been disposed of at sea. How did you react about the fact that Boal and Bigelow decided to NOT include this?zero-dark-thirty-torture-chastain-12172012-144412

Didion: Isn’t it strange — I didn’t think about the issue of the body at all. But I was so moved by the fact that they showed very little of the body. Again: what kind of Hollywood film doesn’t show a bloodied body? We saw more of the other bodies in the house than we did of OBL’s.

JMM: I figured since we never saw an actor portraying Bin Laden — there was no need to show any material views of the corpse.

Didion: And let me say I think this was an extraordinary choice to make. There is no grandstanding. I loved the moment when one of the SEALs says to the shooter, “You killed the 3rd-deck person” in a way that seemed incredulous. None of them can quite absorb the moment. The fact that it’s surreal for them makes it all the more surreal for us.

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

A rare (and ambivalent) flag shot from the film

JMM: I’m with you on that. No grandstanding or flag waving. No one could use the term jingoistic to describe it.

There was one scene that caught me completely by surprise. In the sense of I didn’t see it coming: the hotel in Islamabad blown up by a car bomb down on the street. That really shocked me. And it solidified for us exactly how dangerous being in country really was.

Didion: Too right! NO idea that was coming. No wonder I was such a nervous wreck by the end.

The scene that really floored me — and the one that wound up presenting me with so many conflicting emotions: when Maya gets on the aircraft carrier. JMM, tell me why you think that scene is so powerful.

JMM:  I didn’t quite leave in tears but I thought the last few moments with Maya on the big air transport plane, totally alone — with nothing to do — no place to go — and no one to see was a supremely difficult moment for all of us. I think that particular image was deeply affecting.la-zero-dark-thirty-20121219

It spoke of the desolation one might have facing the unknown, or the sense of completion of a difficult task which means you are now facing an emptiness There was no other way to convey the moment — it was Bigelow’s point to temper the success of the mission by showing us that for Maya it might be the forerunner of hollowness or depression.

If people want to talk about torture in the negative sense, then when you look at this — what Maya is left with — this is really horrifying to contemplate.

Didion: I’m so with you. What that scene conveys is that the killing of OBL is almost an anti-climax. The best analogy I can think of is that this must be what it’s like to have a family member murdered, and one dedicates all one’s emotional energy toward catching, convicting, and imprisoning the murderer — only to realize that one still has a lot of grieving to do afterward. We place a lot of emphasis on retribution, but ultimately this film shows that Maya still just has a big hole in her soul the way the rest of us do. It amounts to a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. An amazing achievement.

JMM: Early on I said that the film has been controversial and polarizing. I’d like to talk about a part of that now. A few members of the Actors community have expressed negative perspectives. Chief among those was that they believe Bigelow and Boal were all too comfortable in portraying the torture. While they may have been comfortable about it — I don’t think there was too much of it or too much emphasis placed on the role of torture by the filmmakers. Obviously Ed Asner, Martin Sheen, and David Clennon have the right to express their opinions, but do you believe they are making a fair judgment about Bigelow and Boal’s intent?

Didion: Like I said earlier, this is a tough one for me. If I were the judge in this case, I’d insist that we look at the entire film — and the film as a whole emphasizes such humanity that I would be forced to argue the scenes of torture do not constitute an endorsement. But it’s tricky because the film takes for granted — and does not editorialize about — the fact that agents used torture on detainees, and that it helped them get information. I think Asner, Sheen et al are wrong in emphasis but perhaps close to being right about the slippery nature of those early scenes.

You?ZerodarkthirtyMaya480

JMM: Before I answer, I really don’t want to throw the actors under the bus — but I do think it is interesting that none of them spoke up after President Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed. Was there anyone, anywhere, that rose up and asked how did you get this info. Was torture involved? I don’t think a small Pakistani child called up and said you might be interested to know who lives across the street.

Didion: I think you’ve nailed something important: this film is agonizingly clear about the fact that one cannot trust the information you gain by torture. It simply amounts to yet more information, much of which might be false. Rather, this film advocates for the trained analysts whose job it is to think intelligently and in educated ways about the masses of conflicting information — indeed, about the sheer vast bulk of information.

JMM: I want to ask about a particular scene that did trouble me. And this might have been a bit of the Hollywood in the film — or make that a small bit of overriding luck. They are able to get their hands on a phone — clone it, and then with their sophisticated tools — somehow they end up driving right NEXT to the car with the courier. Did you find that believable? Talk about your needles in a haystack….

Didion: In such a long, methodical film it DID seem improbable (and quite fuzzy on the details), didn’t it?

JMM: I’ll give them time compression — it might have been many long months — but how did they get the phone — I’m a bit unclear on that.

James Gandolfini

James Gandolfini

Didion: So one of the things I said at the beginning of this conversation — a big, sloppy, grand statement — is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year. Is that too grand for you, JMM? You’ve seen a lot more films than I have — and have written about them wonderfully, so I imagine you have a strong opinion on this subject.

JMM: I’ll go you one better. I think this was the best film of the year and I think that I have to go all the way back to All the President’s Men to find a film based on real events that I liked as much as ZD30.

I think I measure a film by a number of standards but ultimately always ask whether I was engrossed by the film. Did it captivate me to the extent that I wasn’t bothered by the folks chomping popcorn a few seats away. I was fully and totally invested in this one — and for me, that’s a prime indicator of its excellence.

Didion: Let’s keep slathering on the superlatives, shall we?

As an academic I often find myself squirming when I think real-life events are portrayed in ways that don’t fly. So even though I have no idea what torture looks like, how a black site works, or how CIA operatives figure stuff out, I do know that absolutely none of those depictions onscreen felt phony or Hollywood-ized. For examples, see virtually every Hollywood film made about a historic event.

But I’ll go ya one further: this film is somehow also about us, about we who experienced 9/11 and have not learned to grieve. It leads us through a process of killing the architect of that attack and mass murder, but it does so such that we can get someplace beyond the drive for retribution.zerodarkthirty-2

I don’t know what to say beyond the fact that this is an amazing film — I’ve never seen anything like it. Even All the President’s Men didn’t deal with such subjects like the importance of figuring out who we are once our primary bad guy is dead. Or the fact that once he was dead, he just looked like an ordinary old man.

I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with superlatives. But I’m tempted to say it’s the most amazing film achievement of the last ten years.

JMM: Well if that isn’t the grandaddy of superlatives than I don’t know what is. But I very much liked the reference you made about “who we are”. We are the ones who created the terms Enhanced Interrogation. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil (which ties in with your remark about OBL being “like an ordinary old man”). In the Bourne film, David Straithairn says that the CIA is now ‘‘the sharp end of the stick”.

Didion: Tell me, JMM, have you seen anything else since watching ZD30, and are you now ruined for the rest of the films available in theaters at this time of year?

JMM: Like the detective said to Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Forget it Didion — it’s January — there won’t be anything good coming out for a while. Or at least until April.

Didion: Sigh. I have a long list of things to see in the theater, but I just can’t imagine I’ll be able to see them without being disappointed. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen ZD30?44692000001_1896977864001_Zero-Dark-Thirty-rev2-t

JMM: You got that right Professor! —

Didion: Many, many thanks, JMM — what a pleasure to talk about this film. Such a stunning piece of work. [Tips her glass in the air]

JMM: My pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with you once more. I’ll raise my glass to that too!