Tag: Joel Edgerton

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

Midnight Special (2016)

Michael Shannon is the loyal dad in Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Jaeden Lieberher (Alton), Sam Shepard (Pastor Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller)

At some point around its original release, someone attached the label “Spielberg-esque” to Midnight Special. I suppose this may be due to its father-son central relationship and its rough similarities to Close Encounters. But it’s a label that does the film no favours. JJ Abrahms would create a Spielberg-esque film, but Jeff Nichols? Pull the other one. Instead Jeff Nichols creates a sci-fi film that wilfully avoids explanations and turns its back as often as it can on any sentimentalism. It’s more like James Cameron crossed with existential philosophy. It certainly won’t be offering up easy entertainment.

Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the law with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), helped only by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has mysterious powers – glowing eyes, elements of telekinesis and the ability to intercept electrical signals – that have made him a target for everyone from the government to a cult that has kept him under lock and key for years, believing he holds the key to surviving the inevitable apocalypse. Alton has an aversion to sunlight which means our heroes can only travel at night, heading towards a secret location, trying to stay one step ahead of the dangerous figures following them.

Nichols film is almost too elliptical for its own good. But then I think this is partly Nicholls point. He’s looking to subvert a few expectations here. To create a sci-fi, other-world chase movie that’s wrapped itself up in enigmas. Sadly, I think to have enigmas like this become truly engaging, you need to form a connection with the film itself – and Midnight Special fails too much here.

It keeps its cards extremely close to its chest – it only begins to dive into any sort of explanation about what’s going on over halfway into the film, and even then this is kept vague and undefined. There is virtually no exploration given of most of the characters of their backstory, bar a few key points. It’s a chase movie which frequently slows down to a crawl. It’s a science fiction film that’s largely confined to the ‘real’ world. It’s a father-and-son on the run film, which separates these two characters for a large chunk of its runtime. All this makes it very difficult to form an emotional attachment with, in the way you do with, say, Close Encounters or The Terminator (both of which leave traces in this film’s DNA).

Not that I think Nicholls will mind, as this is an attempt to do something different, more of an existential musing on humanity. Its unfortunate that this was exploration of personal regrets and tragedies against a backdrop of earth-shattering sci-fi revelations was done more absorbingly in Arrivalamong others. Compared to that, Nicholls film seems almost a little too pleased with its deep (and in the end slightly empty) mysteries and its opaque characters, many of them defined more by actions and plot functions rather than personality traits.

There’s strong work from Shannon as a father desperate to do the right thing and Lieberher as young boy who becomes calmer and more in control as the film progresses. But we never quite learn enough – or understand enough – about either of them to really invest in their fates.

And without that investment, its hard to worry in the same way about what might happen to them – or to really care about the revelations they are seeking to discover by the films conclusion. The film could counterbalance this if the ideas behind it were fascinating enough. But I am not sure they are. It touches upon questions of faith, parental love, destiny and human nature – but it studies them like they were under a microscope. Ideas are there to be excavated from it, but that doesn’t always make for great story-telling. Take the cult: there are fascinating ideas about the honesty (and pervasions) of faith, contrasting this perhaps with the overwhelming faith the father has in his son’s fate. The film introduces this – and then doesn’t really give it any depth.

It’s a problem all across the film. It’s partly a meditation on human progress and enlightenment – but the film never makes a compelling case or intellectual argument about it. Again there’s some great opportunities here, not least with Adam Driver’s fine performance as a sceptic turning believer – but it even that plotline eventually gets reduced to simply allowing someone to move from A to B for plot purposes. The film – for all the skill it’s made with and the obvious talent of Nicholls – is cold and distant.

And a cold and distant film is eventually going to get that reaction from a lot of its audience. Those who can see its merits, but never engage with it – or care about it – enough to really seek it out.

Loving (2016)

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in a love story that fails to capture fire

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving), Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving), Marton Csokas (Sheriff Brooks), Nick Kroll (Bernie Cohen), Michael Shannon (Grey Villet), Terri Abney (Garnet Jeter), Alano Miller (Raymond Green), Bill Camp (Frank Beazley)

Imagine the idea of the state dictating whom you could and couldn’t marry. This was the predicament Richard and Mildred Loving found themselves in, when the appalling segregationist policies of America in the 1950s saw them arrested for the crime of a white man marrying a black woman. Over time, especially from the 60s onwards, their case was seized upon by Civil Rights movements as a possible cause celebre for repealing many of the worst excesses of laws against mixed-race marriages. But the Lovings themselves remained quiet, private and determined to lead as normal a life as possible, while others fought this battle for them in the court.

Jeff Nichols’ film is full of affection, empathy and regard for these very everyday, normal people. What it is not – for all the skill of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s performances in the leads – is a film that manages to raise any real interest at all. This is a frequently slow-moving story that manages to drain any drama out of what should be a really dramatic story.

Racial inequality is the sort of topic that desperately should be throwing up rage and anger. Imagine Spike Lee tackling this sort of content. Loving settles instead for being a polite, even rather patronising homage to the quiet lack of drive and energy in Richard Loving (in particular). The sort of film that honours his decision to, essentially, get involved as little as possible in the case, to avoid engaging as much as he can in the wider implications their legal battle has for the nation and to studiously resist any attempts to get either side involved in it.

This may be great for reality, but it’s strikingly poor drama. You feel that a drama that focused instead on those actively campaigning for the rights for equal marriage rights to be recognised, the ones who actually fought these battles in court and brought energy and fire to the debate might be a more interesting film. Instead this settles for being a film about regular, not special people, while around the edges of their lives far more interesting events and actions are constantly taking place. 

There are some things to admire in the making of the film – Nichols’ brings his usual poetic skill to it – but this is a glacially paced, unabsorbing, overlong film that manages to make a scintillating and passionate subject as dull as dish water. Negga and Edgerton both do fine jobs – and clearly really admire the everyday nature of their characters – but these softly spoken, unengaged people to whom events happen, but who never take a stand of any sort of try and shape these events or set the direction of their own life, slowly switches the audience off.

Where is the fire here? Nichols’ film instead tries to become a tribute to the honesty of the working man, to Richard’s everyday values, simple, homespun viewpoints. It hails his lack of education (the film dances around where on the education spectrum Richard would be placed today), social awareness or even opinions as something which somehow makes him more “real” than anything else. This attitude, to be honest, becomes both trying and even a little patronising in its bluntness and sense of importance.

Just in case we are ever in danger of ever forgetting that he is a working man, the film can’t go longer than about five minutes without showing Richard laying some bricks. Mildred gets a little more engagement with the social issues of the 1960s – and the film does a good job of suggesting that she was a woman of considerably more hinterland than her husband, but who loyally followed his lead in the world. But neither of them come into focus as truly engaging characters. And because they are so hard to invest in, because the story and their film gives us so little personality for either of them to latch onto,  in the end you don’t get as fired up by the injustice of their case as you should do.

Instead you are left thinking at the end that this sort of racism is bad because, well, we know it was at the start. Following the story of two basically boring people who were in the right place at the right time to become the face of overturning some terrible laws, doesn’t make them interesting and doesn’t make a story that focuses on their lives at the cost of any of the wider issues or actual battles that were being fought, suddenly interesting either.

The King (2019)

Timothée Chalamet is the war like Henry V in the confused The King

Director: David Michôd

Cast: Timothée Chalamet (King Henry V), Joel Edgerton (Sir John Falstaff), Robert Pattinson (The Dauphin), Sean Harris (William Gascoigne), Thomasin McKenzie (Queen Phillippa), Ben Mendelsohn (Henry IV), Tom Glynn-Carney (Henry “Hotspur” Percy), Lily-Rose Depp (Princess Catherine), Dean-Charles Chapman (Thomas, Duke of Clarence), Thibault de Montalembert (King Charles VI), Tara Fitzgerald (Hooper), Andrew Havill (Archbishop of Canterbury)

This is a story that is pretty familiar to most people now – after all, Shakespeare’s play has probably been being played somewhere in the world for most of the last 500 years. Edgerton and Michôd collaborated on the story and script of this restaging, or reimagining, of Shakespeare’s epic of the wayward fun-loving prince turned hardened warrior king. Despite being handsomely filmed, and impressively shot, this makes for an odd and unusual film which falls between the two stools, as it is faithful to neither history nor the Shakespeare original.

The rough concept remains the same. Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is not just a young man who has fun in the taverns of London, he’s also quite forward looking in his attitudes, and just can’t understand why he should be made to carry on the rivalries of his father, the fearsome Henry IV (a broodingly miffed Ben Mendelsohn) or why he should continue the wars that the council pressures him into. When he becomes king, however, Henry is persuaded by his counsellor William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), that the path to peace for the realm – and safety for his subjects – can only be through unifying the kingdom by war with France. Appointing the only man he trusts – his old drinking companion and famed soldier Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) – as the Marshal of his armies, Henry heads to France where destiny awaits.

Michôd’s film is at its strongest when it focuses on the visuals and the aesthetic of its age. It’s beautifully shot, with several striking images, from execution courtyards to the battle of Agincourt itself, which takes place in an increasingly grimy field. The battle itself ends up feeling more than a little reminiscent of ideas from Game of Thrones – in fact a few core images are straight rip-offs from the famous “Battle of the Bastards” episode – but it at least looks good, even if there are few things new in it. The costumes and production design don’t feel like they strike a wrong note either with the grimy, lived-in feel.

More of the issues come around the script. The film’s concept of Henry initially as this rather woke modern king – he just wants peace and to give up these tiresome obsessive conflicts of his father – who slowly becomes more colder and ruthless as the film progresses does at least make thematic sense in the film, but it still rings a little untrue. Much as I would like, it’s hard to believe that any prince like this could ever have existed at the time, and so cool and calculating is Chalamet’s performance from the first that he never feels like a genuine, young, naïve princeling whom we can sympathise with early on. 

It makes the film’s arc rather cold, and Hal an even more unknowable character than the film perhaps even intends. There is very little warmth or genuine friendship between Hal and Falstaff, and Hal moves so quickly to the imagining (and enacting) of war crimes during his time in France that his descent towards potential tyrant feels far too sharp to carry impact. Even in the early days of his reign he’s swift to have potential destablisers in his court executed with no mercy. Where is the fall, if he is such a cold fish to start with? And with Chalamet at his most restrained (like the royal baggage and the accent are a straight-jacket around him), how can an audience invest in him? 

And what are we supposed to be making of this anyway, since the film is at equal pains to suggest that the king may be the subject of manipulation and lies that force his hand into war? This Henry, we learn, values truth and honesty highest – but this doesn’t stop him getting pissed when met with counter-arguments from his advisers (even Falstaff) or reacting with cold fury and disavowal when things don’t go his way. It’s a confusing attempt to add an ill-fitting modern morality to a king who essentially in real life spent most of his life at war, and was to die on campaign in France still trying to cement his rights at a young age.

Edgerton and Michôd’s script fails to really square this circle, and all the attempts to have its cake and eat it (the peace loving king still manages to kick arse, including killing Hotspur in single combat thus averting the Battle of Shrewsbury from ever happening) don’t quite pan out. Edgerton writes himself a decent role as Sir John Falstaff, here reimagined as a million miles from the drunken, cowardly knight into a courageous and hardened soldier who has no time for the compromises and deceit of court (in contrast to Henry’s other advisor, the Machiavellian Gascoigne played with a playful archness by Sean Harris). Making Falstaff a respected figure like this rather flies in the face of the logic of why Henry IV is so annoyed about his son spending time with him, but never mind.

It’s not really Shakespeare and it’s not really history. It sticks closest perhaps to Shakespeare in its portrayal of the French as arrogant fops – led by Robert Pattinson going delightfully OTT as the Dauphin – but it never really quite works out what it wants to be. With its Game of Thrones look and feel, and prince who is both great warrior and reluctant warlord, peace-lover and ruthless executor of his enemies, it feels scattergun and confused rather than coherent and whole.

Red Sparrow (2018)

Jennifer Lawrence tries but fails with dismal material in the dreadful Red Sparrow

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Dominika Egorova), Joel Edgerton (Nate Nash), Matthias Schoenaerts (Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov), Charlotte Rampling (Marton), Mary-Louise Parker (Stephane Boucher), Ciaran Hinds (Colonel Zakharov), Joely Richardson (Nina Egorova), Bill Camp (Marty Gable), Jeremy Irons (General Vladimir Andreiovich Korchnoi), Thekla Reuten (Marta Yelenova), Douglas Hodge (Colonel Maxim Volontov)

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is in trouble. After an act of sabotage by her dance partner, her career in ballet is over. Out of options, she is forced into enrolling at the elite FSB Sparrow School by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts). There young men and women are trained, under the tutelage of its controlling Matron (Charlotte Rampling), to sacrifice all their pride and their bodies for the good of Mother Russia. Thrown into the field, Dominika finds herself entangled with the CIA Agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), whom she has been ordered to seduce.

Red Sparrow is a bad film on several levels. Firstly, it’s at heart a trashy espionage movie that confuses being about intelligence with actually being intelligent. A few late twists doesn’t suddenly make this a work of genius. Secondly, its attitude of being about this damn dirty business of spying manages to make it so grim it’s not even fun to watch. Finally, it’s the sort of film that thinks constantly telling us it has a strong female lead at its heart is the same as actually having a strong female lead at its heart.

To take that final point last… Poor Jennifer Lawrence. Surely only the $20million she was paid for this film attracted her to this. I’ll start by saying she feels miscast in a role that requires a ruthlessness and capacity for viciousness that is not a natural part of her range. But this film struggles to make her feel like a character with real agency. During the course of this film, she has her leg broken, nearly gets raped (twice), strips down in front of a group of people (twice), gets smacked in the face, beaten, tortured, stabbed, shot… And a few sudden last minute gear reversals which suggest that she has been playing her own game this whole time don’t shake the impression that the film is wallowing in the torture and violence that runs through the film.

Anyway, the film is reliant on that because it’s not sharp or clever enough to really have anything else in there in its place. So we stumble from violent set piece to violent set piece, while the characters talk incessantly about macguffins and characters we care almost nothing about. The film has an almost impenetrable plot, not because it’s complex, but because it’s poorly explained and impossible to care about. Actors who are way too good for this material – and I mean the whole cast – struggle to put fire and energy into a shaggy dog story that never goes anywhere.

This all serves to make it a dull film. It really should be a guilty pleasure. All the right material is in there. Spy thrillers make for fun films. It’s interesting to have a woman at the centre of it. It’s got good actors. But too many scenes and set pieces veer towards the overly violent and sexual. For a film that is about a silly spy training school turning out honey trap agents, this film seems determined to ram the grimness of spying in our faces at every turn. This makes sense for a high brow Le Carre adaptation. It makes no sense for silly high-concept Jennifer Lawrence star vehicle.

Who really needs to watch poor Jennifer being slapped about and ill-treated for over two hours? Who has the patience for it? Who is going to enjoy it? The film struggles to get across the idea that Dominika is good at this spying game so it needs other characters to say it openly. Its rug pull towards the end lacks all signposting so gives no satisfaction whatsoever. By the time it comes round you’ll have long ceased stop caring about anything in it as well. A tedious, grimy and rather unpleasant film from start to finish that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

He hates sand you know. Anakin puts the moves on Padmé in Attack of the Clones

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Chancellor Palpatine), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett), Frank Oz (Yoda), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Kenny Baker (R2 D2), Jimmy Smits (Bail Organa), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray/Ki-Adi-Mundi)

Nothing could be as bad as The Phantom Menace. Surely? Well, umm, Attack of the Clones is pretty bad, but it’s not quite as stodgy and racist as the first one. It really isn’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still tone death, poorly written, crappily directed, poorly assembled, textbook bad film-making disguised under a lot of money.

Anyway, ten years have crawled by since Phantom Menace. Padmé (Natalie Portman) is now a senator campaigning against a revolutionary Separatist movement in the Republic, led by mysterious former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). After a failed assassination attempt, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padewan pupil Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen) are assigned to protect her. After another assassination attempt throws up a strange link to a mysterious planet of industrial cloners, Obi-Wan investigates leaving Padmé in Anakin’s care: but the two of them are falling in love, strictly against the rules of the Jedi order.

Sigh. Attack of the Clones is once again a mess, overly computer engineered, badly directed by a director with no knack for visual storytelling other than throwing special effects at the screen. It has a densely disinteresting plot about shady dealings around a mysterious Clone army that eventually the film doesn’t bother to resolve. Lucas shoots the entire film in a shiny, sterile, entirely computer generated environment that looks worse and worse the older the film gets. It builds towards a series of clashes at the end that have impressive spectacle on first viewing, but are hugely empty viewing experiences the more you come back to them. But all this isn’t even the film’s main problem.

First and foremost, the most egregious problem with this film is the romance at its heart. This romance, whose impact is meant to be felt through every film is to come, is as clumsy and unconvincing as anything you are likely to see. Not for one second are you convinced that this couple could ever actually be a thing. For starters Anakin is a whiny, preening, chippy rather dull man who over the course of the film murders a village full of people. Hardly the sort of character to make women swoon. On top of this, his romantic banter and tendency of staring blankly and possessively at Padmé has all the charm of a would-be stalker, mentally planning out the dimensions of the basement he’ll imprison his love in. 

Padmé is hardly much more engaging. Her way of handling this love-struck young man, who she claims she doesn’t want to encourage? To flirt with him in a series of increasingly revealing costumes, while constantly telling him “no we can’t do anything” – for unspecified reasons. But then as she says “you’ll always be that 12 year old boy to me” (Oh yuck George!). Portman looks she can barely raise any interest in holding Anakin’s hand, let alone conceiving future generations of Skywalkers. The desperate attempt to create a sense of “love across the divide” falls flat, flat, flat with all the sweep of a Casualty romance of the week. Put it frankly, we are never ever given any reason at all for us to think that they have any reason to be in love.

Despite all this the film desperately tries to throw them together into a series of clichéd romantic encounters, from candle-lit meals to gondola cruises around the lakes of Naboo. Jesus the film even throws in a flirtatious picnic (in which, true to form, Anakin espouses the benefits of totalitarianism, hardly the sort of thing to get a young girl’s heart fluttering!) followed by a roll around in the long grass after a bit of horseplay. To be honest it’s sickening and all the fancy dressing in the world never disguises the utter lack of chemistry between either characters or actors. And you’ll suffer with the actors who are trawling through the appalling “romantic” dialogue. The infamous “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth” sums it up – especially as Anakin ends it with stroking Amidala’s exposed shoulder possessively. Late in the film Padmé says “I’ve been dying inside since you came back into my life” – I know how she fuckin’ feels.

But then to be honest nothing really works in this simply terrible film. Of course a lot of the blame rests with Lucas whose overwhelming ineptitude as a writer and director is exposed in scene after scene. Most of the dialogue lacks any wit or lightness at all, constantly straining for a grandeur it can’t deliver and reads like George simply knocked out the first draft and left it at that. As for his directing: the camera positioning lacks any imagination what-so-ever. Most scenes that don’t have lightsabers feature characters sitting talking at each other to fill in plot details (I’m not joking here, there are so many different designs of chairs in this film it’s like strolling around IKEA). Sometimes George spices it up by having characters work slowly and aimlessly from A to B telling each other the plot (I’m failing to resist saying this is a pretty decent metaphor from the film).

The film shakes this up with a few action sequences which either tediously ape things we’ve seen before, but not-as-good (a chase through an asteroid field smacks of Empire Strikes Back) or having a computer game realism to them that never involves you. A prolonged sequence in a battle droid factory literally looks like a computer game from its hideously shiny lack of realism, to its logic, to the way George shoots it with the conveyor belt moving relentlessly forward visually like a dated platform game.

In fact computer game is a pretty good way of thinking about this film. When making this film, Lucas was convinced this would be the start of a new age: that only dull, traditional directors would be building sets and that all the cool kids would make everything in computers. Watching this film today in hi-def blu-ray does it no favours. Lucas’ computer generated sets (in most shots everything except the actors and their costumes are not real) look ridiculously shiny and unrealistic. There is no weight and reality to anything. Instead it all looks like some sort of bizarre, wonky computer visuals. How can you invest in anything in this film when even the goddamn sofa they are sitting on is a visual effect? How can anything have any weight or meaning? Compared to the lived in appearance of the Millennium Falcon, nothing looks realistic or carries any weight at all.

George Lucas isn’t really a director of action either. It’s hard not to compare the epic battles here with the style and substance of the (equally effects filled world) of Lord of the Rings being released at the same time. There, the battle scenes not only carry real emotional weight and peril but also have at least some sense of tactics and story-telling. This is just a collection of special effects being thrown at each other, like an exploding fart in a special effects lab. This makes for events that look impressive when you first see them, but carry no lasting impact: when you revisit the film, nothing feels important or dangerous or coherent – instead it’s just a lot of stuff happening, loudly.

This goes for the famous Yoda-Dooku light saber duel. Sure when I first saw this, seeing a computer generated muppet take on a stunt double with an octogenarian’s face super-imposed on his felt really exciting. But again, on repeated viewings, it’s just a load of wham and bang that kind of leaves you cold (not least because the fight is a showy bore-draw). It’s as ridiculously over-made and over stuffed as half a dozen other fights in the film. It’s almost representative of how crude these prequels are: a character always defined by his intellect and patience in Yoda reduced to a bouncy special effect for a moment of cheap “wow” for the fans. I’ll also throw in the lousy fan service of turning Boba Fett (a character who has a fascination for a lot of fans for no real reason) into an integral part of the Star Wars backstory – as if George intended this character at any point to be so popular, until he released the merchandising opportunities…

Lucas’ direction fails time and time and time again. Even small scenes fall with a splat or feature moments that get the wrong type of chuckles. The moment where Anakin embraces his dying mother? Forever ruined by the snigger worthy collapse of Pernilla August’s Shmi in his arms, looking like a primary school child miming playing dead (tongue out and all) in a school play. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s chase through the skies of Coruscant packed with “jokey” attempted buddy cop lines that never ring true. The film has even more skin crawlingly embarrassing scenes than Phantom Menace, from a sickeningly cutesy room of “younglings” learning Jedi skills to Obi-Wan’s bizarre encounter with a greasy alien in some sort of American diner. There is precisely one moment of wit in the film (Obi-Wan using the force to tell a drug dealer to “You want to go home and rethink your life”). Other than that – nope, it’s poorly made, poorly written, poorly assembled rubbish.

None of the actors emerge with credit. Pity poor old Hayden Christiansen, left to his own devices by Lucas’s inept, direction free, direction. But he is absolutely, drop-down, unreedemably awful in this film. In fact Anakin, far from being a jumping off point, was the death-knell of his career. Was there really no other young actor with charisma who could have stepped in to take this role instead? Portman fairs a tiny bit better, while at least McGregor, Jackson and Lee have enough experience to take care of themselves. But there is no sense of relationship between any of these characters. The two most important relationships Anakin has in the film contain no chemistry: he and Padme and he and Obi-Wan (neither of whom seem to particularly like each other).

Attack of the Clones could never be as disappointing as Phantom Menace (what could?) but it’s far, far, far away from being a good film. It’s got a simply terrible script, is directed with a dull flatness that all the CGI flair and shouting can’t distract you from. There is nothing in there for you to invest emotionally in. It’s built around a relationship that quite frankly doesn’t work at all on any levels. It builds to a random ending that feels like George ran out of ideas rather than because it meets any thematic reason. How could it all have gone so wrong?

The Great Gatsby (2013)

“Hello old sport”: Leonardo DiCaprio is The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan), Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan Baker), Isla Fisher (Myrtle Wilson), Jason Clarke (George Wilson), Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer Wolfsheim), Jack Thompson (Dr Walter Perkins), Adelaide Clemens (Catherine)

The Great Gatsby is possibly the great American novel. I’ve only read it once, but I certainly admired its beautiful prose, capturing of an era of American life and understanding of the fragility behind America’s love of success. Baz Luhrmann is clearly a fan, as he spent years putting together this passion project, presenting the biggest, brashest version of Fitzgerald you are ever going to see.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a young writer turned bonds salesman in 1920s New York. He lives across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a brash old-money man carrying on an affair with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of his garage mechanic. Carroway’s next-door neighbour is the sumptuously wealthy, but mysterious, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose parties and generosity are legendary. As Carraway gets to know Gatsby (as much as anyone can), he discovers that Gatsby has a deep, near obsessive, love for Daisy.

Luhrmann’s film is a technicolour explosion that uses many of the techniques you’ll be familiar with from any of director’s other films. The camera is a whirligig of motion. The colours are bright and primary. The whole tone of the film (certainly for its first hour) is larger than life. The narrative has been tweaked to take on the tone of a Greek Tragedy, with the loud noise, fast camera moves and speedy pace all inverted in the latter half to invoke sadness and tragedy. And of course, the music is deliberately anachronistic, mixing modern genre music with 1920s sounds.

Sometimes this high-budget technicolour brilliance does feel like it is partly getting in the way of the deeper themes that lie within the original. But that might be partly because the novel’s themes are so reliant on internalised feelings, unsaid or guessed emotions, and deeply purple prose, that these are ideas which are very hard to translate to the screen.

There is something to be said for Luhrmann turning one of the pillars of 20th-century American culture into a spiritual sequel to Moulin Rouge!. And Moulin Rouge! is what the film strongly resembles, not only in design, but its romantic structure, poetic retelling, high drama, sense of impending doom and danger behind the bright lights, assault on class and the way it stands in the way of true love, and the lack of freedom in our lives. Both even have sad, reflective authors book-ending events.

So your enjoyment of the film is probably going to depend on how you feel about Luhrmann’s OTT style. Love Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Julietand you will probably find something to enjoy here (and you’ll also notice his love of tragic love stories). Saying that, of those three, Gatsby is the one the carries the least depth to it, which is intriguing as it probably mines the most psychologically rich source material. While Luhrmann understands that the book is about the real emotions masked by explosive parties and opulence – the film often feels as choked by these things as the characters do.

This is partly because I feel both Maguire’s and Mulligan’s performances don’t quite work. Maguire is so stripped back, quiet and passive he almost disappears – you don’t get a sense of Carraway as either a shrewd observer or someone wrapped up in events: instead he’s a passenger, like the plot contrivance Gatsby sometimes treats him as. Similarly, Mulligan is slightly overwhelmed by the movie, not giving a strong enough performance for her to break through. The film powers forward with such momentum and brashness, it squashes her.

It’s probably why the most successful lead performance by far comes from DiCaprio. He’s perfectly cast as Gatsby: so good in fact you wish he was in a more thoughtful, relaxed film that would give him a more of a chance to breathe. DiCaprio perfectly encapsulates the desperation just beneath Gatsby’s surface, the fear and uncertainty that lies under his suave urbanity. He completely gets the character, understands he is a showman presenting a front to the world because that’s what he thinks the world wants, but who is, in his own way, as empty and lost as the world of bright lights he is offering people. It’s an excellent performance.

Luhrmann’s work with DiCaprio is what gives the film it’s centre and, for all the colour, noise and joy of the first 40 minutes or so, it finds its heart in the moments of acting and character interplay as the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom love triangle comes to a head. This scene, with its bubbling emotions, high stakes and tension is like an oasis of calm in the high-faluting scenery that surrounds it. But then this is a film where the smaller moments actually come across as richer than the larger ones – partly helped by the fact that Joel Edgerton and Elizabeth Debicki both give excellent performances as the key supporting characters. 

The Great Gatsby captures the feel of Fitzgerald rather well, but for all the dialogue of the book placed over the film in voiceover, it never quite manages to capture the spirit of the book in the same way. It looks wonderful, and its dynamic filming is certainly enjoyably impressive, but it doesn’t quite become a film that deals in emotions and depth. It flashes and fizzles but it never lets us really soak in its ideas and themes. It’s all too much at times, and the tragic sadness at the heart of the story, of this lost boy trying to live the life of a man, never comes out as it should. An interesting and entertaining film, but not one that will last.

Black Mass (2015)

Johnny Depp dives into his make-up box in this sup-par wannabe Goodfellas

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Johnny Depp (James “Whitey” Bulger), Joel Edgerton (John Connolly), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Bulger), Rory Cochrane (Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi), Kevin Bacon (Charles McGuire), Jesse Plemons (Kevin Weeks), Peter Sarsgaard (Brian Halloran), Dakota Johnson (Lindsey Cyr), Corey Stoll (Fred Wyshak), David Harbour (John Morris), Julianne Nicholson (Marianne Connolly), Adam Scott (Robert Fitzpatrick), Brad Carter (John McIntyre), W. Earl Brown (Johnny Martorano)

Well Goodfellas casts a long shadow doesn’t it? Certainly long enough to completely drown Black Mass which, despite some good acting and period detail, never really comes together into something compelling or engrossing or even really that interesting. But you’ve got to admire how often Scott Cooper must have watched Scorsese’s classic. Shame he didn’t bring anything new to the table.

In South Boston in the mid-1970s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) controls organised crime. With his rule under challenge from rival gangs, Bulger turns informer to the FBI – specifically agent and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) – offering information on his rivals in return for being allowed to take over their business. Inevitably, Bulger exploits the relationship for his own gain – with the increasingly blind-eye of Connolly who becomes more and more embroiled in the underworld. 

So there are good things in this. The period detail is pretty good. There are plenty of good gangster moments, even if they’re the reheated leftovers from everything from The Sopranos to Goodfellas. The low-level gangsters we follow have a slightly different perspective – even if most of their characters are completely interchangeable. It’s interesting that Bulger moved in such legitimate circles as the FBI and his State Senate President brother (well played by Benedict Cumberbatch). But the film never really makes this come together to mean anything. You don’t learn anything, you don’t understand anything new – it’s just a series of events.

That’s despite, to be fair, a very good performance by Johnny Depp. Sure the part caters to Depp’s Olivier-like love of the dressing-up box – here he sports bad teeth, a bald patch, a paunch and a pair of searing bright-blue contacts that make him look like a Muppet demon – but for all that, he is very good. His natural presence works to make Bulger a leader and he has a swaggering, dry, cruel quality to him that never makes him anything less than unsettling. He also conveys the monstrous moral blankness behind Bulger, using a fig-leaf of loyalty to cover his destruction.

It’s a shame then that he’s not really given anything to do. Too much of the part is reminiscent of other things: from Jack Nicholson in The Departed (to be fair, Bulger was the inspiration for that character), to Joe Pesci’s “Do I amuse you?” speech or his insanity from Casino. Montages as tired as a sleepless night run through the collection of funds and the beating of rivals. It’s just all so predictable. It’s a box ticking exercise. Yawn.

The biggest shame is that, in Connolly, the film has a far more interesting potential lead character. Imagine it repositioned to follow him instead: the semi-chancer, semi-star-struck kid swept up in the glamour of crime. So much more interesting. How far did he turn a blind eye? How far was he essentially an accomplice? Did he feel or know he was doing the wrong thing? Consider Depp’s brilliance in Donnie Brasco and then imagine what he could have made of this Faustian figure: and what an interesting film we could have had.

Instead, good as Edgerton is, the film barely scrapes the surface of his thoughts or motivations. We get beats – and his wife (excellently played by Julianne Nicholson) is clearly disgusted by his gangster friends – but it constantly falls flat as we keep pulling back to Bulger, or internal FBI arguments that tell us nothing. On top of this Bulger’s empire is ham-fistedly explained: it’s never clear what his reach is, what his main crimes are or what his aims are. We see killings but don’t often know why – and a sequence in Miami is so poorly explained I still don’t know what it was about.

The film introduces Bulger’s lieutenants – but reduces them to identikit hangers on. All the flash-back retrospective confessions (a framing device the film uses to very mixed effect) in the world can’t turn them into characters. Even Bulger’s relationship with his patrician brother gets lost in the shuffle – again a film focused on a crime lord and his State Senator brother would have been more interesting.

Black Mass is well made – but its problem is that there is on the edges a far more interesting film that never comes into focus. If they had chosen a different focus we could have had a film worth watching. Instead, like Connolly, the film is seduced away by the dark soul of Bulger. Depp is great – but the film is so in love with him and his transformation that it becomes something completely forgettable.

King Arthur (2004)

Clive Owen leads his merry men in clumsy would-be Arthurian epic King Arthur

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stellan Skarsgård (Cerdric), Ray Winstone (Bors), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Til Schweiger (Cyrnic)

The story of King Arthur has entertained generations for so long, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been a great movie made about it. Sure there have been entertaining guilty pleasures (like my love for the bobbins Excalibur) but there hasn’t been a great action adventure made about the legendary king. And this Jerry Bruckheimer actioner sure ain’t it. But it re-enforces my seemingly never-ending appetite for distinctly poor, big-budget, epic films.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Celtic Roman cavalry officer who commands a Sarmatian cavalry unit, serving a fixed term of service with Rome. They help to guard Hadrian’s Wall against rebel native Britons. Before their discharge, the knights are given one last job: go behind enemy lines to rescue a prominent Roman citizen living beyond the wall. Once they arrive, they find he has enslaved the local Brits – including imprisoning a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Knowing a Saxon invasion force lead by the fearsome Cerdric (Stellan Skarsgård) is ravaging Britain – and that the Romans are withdrawing from the empire – Arthur decides to lead the whole group back to the wall and safety.

King Arthur isn’t a terrible film, just a totally mediocre one. It’s an uninspired coupling together of half-a-dozen other better movie: from its Dirty Dozen line-up, through its Gladiator style score (Hans Zimmer rips himself off again), to its remix of a thousand period sword epics from Spartacus on, mixed with its Braveheart style design and battle scenes. It’s almost completely unoriginal from start to finish. There is no inspiration here at all – it’s made by people who have seen other films and based everything on that rather than wanting to make a film themselves.

It even wraps itself up with an unseemly haste, as if all involved knew they hadn’t nailed it so decided the best thing to was to knock the whole thing on the head and call it a bad job.

The film probably stumbles from the start with its claim to present a sort of “true historical story” of King Arthur. Now I’m not one to get hung up on historical accuracy too much – except when it’s making extravagant claims which are just not true – but the “true story” here is bobbins. Nothing really feels right – from the Roman politics to the idea of a group of loaded Roman settlers setting up a huge estate deep into Scotland (I mean what the fuck was Hadrian’s Wall for eh?). The knights bear very little resemblance indeed to their legendary counterpoints. In fact it’s almost as if they had a script about a brave band of Roman soldiers and just stuck the name King Arthur on it for the name recognition (perish the thought!).

The idea of a group of seasoned, grizzled warriors isn’t a bad one – and it works rather well here because most of the actors in these roles are pretty good (particularly Mads Mikkelsen as a sort of Samurai Tristan). It makes for some interesting dynamics and always some fine character work – the best arc going to Ray Stevenson’s Dagonet as a knight who finds something to fight for. It also contrasts rather well with Stellan Skarsgard’s world-weary villain, who’s seen it all and finds it hard to get excited about ravaging and pillaging anymore.

But it’s a shame that this promising set-up gets wasted. After a good start, when we get to see all our heroes’ personalities reflected in their fighting styles as they repel an attack on a bishop, these dynamics quickly settle down into the usual tropes: you’ve got the joker, the cocky one, the reluctant one who’s only out for himself… Fortunately the Director’s Cut (which I watched) deletes the worst of Ray Winstone’s comic “banter”, but it’s still pretty standard stuff.

The mission behind the wall then pretty much follows the pattern you would expect: the guy they go to rescue is an unsympathetic bastard, they find themselves protecting the weak, it’s a dangerous journey back to safety, blah-blah-blah. Although a battle on the ice has some genuine excitement to it, there isn’t anything new here at all. Everyone just feels like they are going through the motions. 

When the battles kick off in earnest, they are pretty well mounted – even if they are hugely reminiscent of the opening battle of Gladiator and the low-camera, immersive battles of Braveheart. Sure there is a smoky immediacy about them, like a sword wielding Saving Private Ryan, but it’s still pretty much what you would expect. The action pans out with no real surprises – our heroes and villains even match up for the expected clashes.

Clive Owen is a fine actor, but he is manifestly wrong for the role of a classical hero and the awe-inspiring battlefield heroics he is called to carry out here. He’s too modern an actor, with too much of the world-weary smoothness to him, for him to really convince as this hardened medieval warrior. Owen’s delivery and style is so restrained he can’t bring the bombast or elemental force the part requires. Allegedly he was cast because Bruckheimer believed he would be the next James Bond – the actor they turned down for Arthur? Daniel Craig… 

Nope. Sorry.

Similarly Kiera Knightley is just as miscast. Let’s put aside the fact that she is half Owen’s age. There is a prep school headgirlishness to her that just doesn’t work when we are asked to buy her as woad-covered warrior princess. She’s too strait-laced, too polite, too sophisticated. When she does step into the full-on Boudicca look, you’ll giggle rather than tremble. For all her exertion, she’s not convincing in the role either.

But then that’s King Arthur all over: trying hard but not convincing, with such a tenuous link back to the original myth that the fact they are just using the Arthur name to flog some more tickets is all the more obvious. Major elements of the legend are missing – in particular the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle is cut down to the merest of suggestions, enough for it to be noticed but not enough for it to feel like a real plot – and other elements (Merlin, the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table) seem shoe-horned in for no real effect. It’s basically just a bombastic B-movie, a sort of Gladiator rip-off without the poetry. Moments of fun, but still not that good.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty tries to raise questions and views, but dodges many of them

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), James Gandolfini (CIA Director), Stephen Dillane (National Security Advisor), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Mark Duplass (Steve), John Barrowman (Jeremy), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Chris Pratt (Justin)

Zero Dark Thirty is a deeply troubling film: a journalistic investigation into the hunt for Bin Laden, shot with an action thriller film ethos. It wears its factual accuracy and research with an ostentatious pride on its sleeve, but ducks out of making any judgement on the issues it presents, as if afraid to pollute the events it displays with editorialising. But some events demand discussion and a point of view: as one critic said, you wouldn’t make a film about slavery that focuses on the cotton output. Similarly, a film that drives us towards the killing of the vile Bin Laden should also challenge us more about the methods used to capture him, the extent to which we “became what we hunted”.

And I don’t buy that the film is challenging us to recognise this ourselves. It starts with recordings from the 9/11 flights (a moment which made me feel uneasy to say the least and many family members were also unhappy with), its lead character Maya is caught up in two bombings and an assassination attempt, her best friend (well played by Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a suicide bombing. All of this, along with the film’s omission of any exploration of the terrorists themselves, is encouraging us to look at a particular side of the argument. Cementing this is the end of the film which, despite caveats, has a “mission accomplished” feeling – it may not be flag waving, but it does want us to feel the professionalism of a job well done, reinforced by the tearful release of 12 years of tension from Maya. We are not being encouraged to question the attitudes or assumptions of the characters in front of us; we are being steered towards a particular view of these characters and events. Without an explicit endorsement, but implicit suggestions that ends may well have justified means.

Of course, 9/11 was an abomination – but setting the deck the way the film does means it makes it easier to condone the terrible things that the CIA do in this film to get the results it got. That’s the problem with the film’s “stanceless stance” – its patting itself on the back for not taking sides means it doesn’t acknowledge any depths to its facts, it gives no context. There are many, many issues and motivations, from both sides, behind the events we see here – but we don’t learn anything about any of them. Instead the film is like a Wikipedia page with brilliant photography and editing: a skilfully presented PPT deck that shows us what happens, but doesn’t feel like it tells us anything about why or how it happened.

Torture is of course the main issue here. The film opens with a gruelling extended torture sequence of almost 25 minutes. The information it yields directly is questionable, but it does eventually lead to a crucial name, which is backed up later by Maya watching videos of others undergoing “extreme interrogation” and saying the same name. Now, torture in something like 24 feels different: there at least (a) the whole world was a cartoon, (b) the danger was immediate (“a nuclear bomb will go off in thirty minutes dammit!”) and (c) there was a sense of conflict in its perpetrators. Neither is the case here.

That’s not a defence of 24, but here it’s full on psychological and physical assault over a sustained period of time with no identified imminent threat and no real sense that the torturers feel they are doing anything wrong (I guess the film is suggesting they have become deadened to it, but still would it hurt to say something along those lines?). And it actually happened, and not just to bombers and terrorist kingpins, but (in this film) to couriers and bankers. Surely that demands some sort of acknowledgement in the film that it was wrong? Instead the film fudges this and the torture of suspects is shown to contribute in some way to the successful delivery of Bin Laden; there is no real questioning of whether the value of the information it directly obtained justified its use.

Part of the problem of the film is that it was originally commissioned as a film about the hunt for Bin Laden – the US actually finding him rather screwed up the narrative. There are elements of that original film in there: a hunt for a chimera, an obsession with one man that blinds us all to the bigger picture: “You’re chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network grows all around you” Kyle Chandler’s character cries out with frustration at one point. Maya (and the film) slaps him down – it never questions whether Bin Laden was worth the focus and expense. But it hints at the repurposed nature of the film, which would have had to tackle this question head on before Bin Laden was found. Was this the best use of their efforts? Was there a benefit to the war on terror outside of the satisfaction of punishing Bin Laden? How in control was Bin Laden of the jihad by then?

It feels to me that this film is two films uneasily mixed together. One film wants to explore the nature of obsession, and wants to question if it’s worth catching one man at the cost of diverting attention from hundreds of others. The other film is a triumphant story of patience and dedication rewarded. You can’t help but feel that a film released prior to Bin Laden’s killing might have been a more interesting and profound piece of work, which could have looked at the nature and cost of obsession. Instead, history itself pushes the film into saying “well it had ups and downs but the ends justified the means eventually”.

None of this doubt about the final film is of course an apology for the appalling crimes of Bin Laden and his followers. And Zero Dark Thirty is, however you cut it, a very well made film and Bigelow is an extremely good director. Jessica Chastain invests a character almost devoid of personality, about whom we learn almost nothing, with an emblematic depth that makes her feel like a profound embodiment of American determination and will, like some sort of morally conflicted female Gary Cooper. The film also does feel like it has something to tell us about an America under siege – although again, by shying away from editorialising, it loses the chance to present a specific commentary on how 9/11 affected the country, and its sudden sense of vulnerability and unease in the world.

It’s a troubling film, a film that seems to be dodging taking a moral stand on areas. It could still have said “some of things that were done were bad but the end result was good”: that would have been fine. But by not making any statement at all, it feels like it’s dodging the issue, not challenging us.