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Epic Pileup

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Did the SEALs need to shoot the woman who threw herself on top of her husband’s body? (Is she going for his gun or trying to shield him? Not clear.) Did they have to pump extra shots into her when she was down—or, for that matter, into bin Laden? Bigelow isn’t heartless. She gives you glimpses of those orphaned kids, but no one will be circulating petitions on their behalf. Nor will anyone on the basis of Zero Dark Thirty alone feel compelled to decry “enhanced interrogation.” The torture is efficient and gets results. The outcry alluded to over abuses at Abu Ghraib screws up intelligence-gathering. The anti-torture stance of President Obama—who made the hunt for bin Laden a priority after Rumsfeld’s military let him slip out of Tora Bora, and gave the go-ahead to proceed with a mission that could have brought him down the way the catastrophic Iran rescue mission felled Jimmy Carter—is presented (via a TV interview) as an impediment. Dan the ace torturer tells Maya, “You don’t want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes.” Crap: There go the dog collars.

The best theory I’ve heard for the movie’s vantage is that Boal fell in love with his CIA sources and embraced their perspective wholeheartedly. Admittedly, that’s one reason the film is so effective—much like 24, with its army of ACLU types poised to swoop down on agents trying to save us from all those ticking time bombs. I’m more sympathetic to Alex Gibney’s view in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, in which former FBI agent Jack Cloonan cites evidence that sensory deprivation, waterboarding, etc. make people psychotic in less than 72 hours and elicit bogus confessions. At a Q&A last week, Bigelow and Boal shrugged off the movie’s politics. They’re just reporters reporting what happened, they said. And after all, we got the motherfucker who took down the Trade Center. Maya is the pretty little lady whose certainty compelled American men to overcome their wishy-washy caution. Zero Dark Thirty gives the dark side a woman’s blessing; a woman director has made the best damn unsavory thriller in years.

How nice it would be to weigh in on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit without having to lament its newfangled double-speed 3-D 48-frames-per-second projection rate, which must be seen to be disbelieved. The immediacy of the ­actors is startling, but the background is weirdly foreshortened, the fakeness of the sets and makeup an endless distraction. Staginess does nothing for a ­fantasy-film epic. The dislocation caused me to miss great gobs of exposition in the first half-hour, which is all exposition, the grandeur of the Lord of the Rings trilogy having been replaced by something that resembles tatty summer-stock theater.

The Hobbit probably plays better at the normal frame rate, but how much better? Hard to say. Signs of bloat are everywhere. The relatively breezy Rings prelude—one book—doesn’t need to be stretched out to three long installments: The fractious team of dwarves looking to regain their homeland after many years of exile could have traveled the Great East Road, fought the requisite orcs and dragons, and still had time for a song or two in one movie. Martin Freeman as the young hobbit Bilbo mugs his way through the first half (the invasion of his home by dwarves and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is like the Marx Brothers stateroom sequence stretched out to an hour), but he wins you over in the one stupendous scene: a potentially lethal contest of riddles with Gollum, once again embodied by Andy Serkis plus CGI. Gollum is more chilling this time, his Uriah Heep obsequiousness yet to come, a violent flesh-eating psychopath with voices in his head telling him to kill.

The duel with Gollum, set in a cave, is like a one-act play, and makes me think this technology would work for, say, filmed theater and opera, where the uncanny presence of the performers would be something to treasure and the artificiality wouldn’t matter. Meanwhile, we have the prospect of two more Hobbit pictures, which are sure to be less exciting than discussions of pixel resolution, scan lines, and refresh rates.

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Sony. R.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Warner Bros. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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