February 14, 2013

Anne Hamilton reviews Zero Dark Thirty and House of Cards. 

If you are like me, you love the American political drama. I remember religiously watching THE WEST WING with roommates in college and law school – dreaming of future days with Sorkin’s racehorse -tongued characters with their bouncy walks and high-minded ideals. Yet, looking back at the show’s pilot, which aired in 1999, the writing shows its age. Enter here Kathryn Bigelow’s  ZERO DARK THIRTY and the Netflix’s recently released HOUSE OF CARDS. These two political dramas proffer current, critical revenge narratives about American political culture that are new to American story-telling, harkening back to the 1970s malaise that produced All THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE CANDIDATE and taking the story a step further.

Bigelow’s ZERO DARK THRITY is easily the most important movie of the year, even if it is not the most popular. Much has already been said about the films artistic merits, from Jessica Chastain’s (THE DEBT) performance of a female CIA operative to Bigelow’s (THE HURT LOCKER) preoccupation with depictions of violence in film, a theme she has been committed to since her Master’s thesis at Columbia. ZERO DARK THIRTY’s graphic depiction of torture has ignited controversy and criticism from several U.S. Senators, including John McCain and Dianne Feinstein, who argue that Bigelow’s story promotes torture and tells an inaccurate account of how the ill-gotten intelligence was used in the most famous manhunt of this century. Although it is true that the film begins with a torture scene and ends with the capture and killing of UBL, the film is deliberately ambiguous about the ties, if any, between the two. Moreover, the controversy over its depiction of torture is misplaced. As Michael Moore has rightly pointed out, the film “will make you hate torture” and, I would suggest, hate the leadership that allowed us engaged in it. The film is not a story about how to capture a terrorist; it is a story about America’s response to a terrorist attack and how this response changed us profoundly.

ZERO DARK THIRTY is an American revenge story, which is in itself remarkable. America, up until now, has not been the protagonist in revenge stories.  We have been heroes (BLACK HAWK DOWN) we have been victims (PEARL HARBOR), we are accustomed to being saviors, (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) but the posture of American revenge is new and worth looking at closely. ZERO DARK THRITY begins with a black screen over which plays the 911 calls of victims in the twin towers before they fell. It then cuts to a CIA black site where Maya, the film’s young, female protagonist , is at her first day of work as a U.S.-trained torturer. In the beginning of the film Maya is a young soldier following orders, orders that change once the Obama administration steps into office. She becomes a champion of revenge through the personal loss of a trusted friend and colleague to Al-Qaeda, and experience which transforms her into a woman obsessed with revenge to the point where, as one character puts it, “it’s her against the world.” Maya’s revenge story becomes an allegory of American power: she has no friends, no lovers, no home no work beyond the quest to capture and kill UBL, which is why the last image in the film – that of Maya as a plane’s loan passenger with no destination, is so poignant. “Where do we go from here?” is the question that looms once revenge is achieved.


By contrast, Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS is a dance with Machiavelli through the labyrinthine halls of American politics.  An original series produced by Netfilx, which poured a reported $100 million into the production, the show is a series developed by Beau Willimon (IDES OF MARCH), who worked on Capitol Hill before and after his MFA in playwriting from Columbia.  David Fincher (SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB) serves the series as an executive producer and also directed the first two episodes. The show is an adaptation of a previous BBC miniseries of the same name, based on the novel by Lord Dobbs. The entire first season premiered on February 1, 2013 exclusively on Netflix and a second season is currently in development, marking a paradigm shift in serial content distribution that has HBO and SHOWTIME nervous, and rightly so.  Offering some of the most scintillating writing on television: “He wants to rip my head off and peel it like an orange” and “ I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood,” it also provides a strange and remarkable shift in the American political drama.

HOUSE OF CARDS has been called the best in its genre since THE WEST WING, yet the differences could not be more striking. Kevin Spacey stars as Francis Underwood, a southern congressmen and the House Majority Whip who has been unceremoniously passed over for a promotion to Secretary of State. The story begins when Underwood decides to exact revenge on his enemies – with the help of his icy Lady Macbeth of a wife played by Robin Wright (THE PRINCESS BRIDE). The cast of characters are mere pawns in the hands of Underwood – a political animal extraordinaire. The President is a vain man controlled by a Midwestern billionaire, Congress members are easily cowed, blackmailed or bought off, and everyone down to the chauffer is self-interested and therefore made predictable in Underwood’s game of chess. Yet, what is most seductive about the show is Willimon’s use of the direct address. When Spacey turns to the camera and speaks to you, you feel you are getting private tutelage from the devil himself. Unlike political dramas of the past, HOUSE OF CARDS is completely void of idealism – one could even say that it is nihilistic –  and yet it is still extremely satisfying. Why? In the wake of the financial crisis and the void of governance surrounding the fiscal cliff how could Americans find pathos in anything but precisely this kind of story?

Francis Bacon called revenge a kind of “wild justice” but cautioned that it caused the most injury to the ones who seek it. What can we learn from the advent of the American revenge narrative?  First, it teaches us that revenge is inherently a reactive posture: the pursuit of power in a revenge story is a conspicuous sign of its perpetual lack.  Moreover, the source of value in a revenge plot is the same thing that must be destroyed so, once this act is achieved, the source disappears and we are left with nothing. In ZERO DARK THIRTY, this leaves us without a destination and alone. In HOUSE OF CARDS, it corrupts the soul and the souls of those around us. Second, revenge is always morally ambiguous. It is, bluntly put, a far cry from the Sorkinean walk and talk of yesteryear and the high-minded, self-indulgent preoccupations of the 1990s. (Doesn’t a White House sex scandal seem quaint, even comforting, when compared with the problems facing us today?) This tells me that the American moral palate has matured, and so has the story America tells to itself about itself. Third and finally, the American revenge story is one that offers us illumination: it tells us who we are even in the darkest corners of ourselves, how we got where we are, and, with hope, helps us figure out how we can make ourselves better.

Anne Hamilton is an attorney and a filmmaker. She holds a J.D. from Yale and a Masters degree from Stanford. She got her start in film as an intern on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and has worked on several projects since.  She lives in California.