With three new blockbusters, Americans have a unique opportunity to send a message to the gatekeepers of our popular culture. Hundreds of thousands of moviegoers will choose to invest in three films--Gangster Squad, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained--each blood-soaked and spinning on a different axis of violence. We can no longer dismiss such treatises as simply movies. Our support for films such as these portend our social nature.
Sean Penn, hidden somewhere beneath a ridiculous amount of prosthetics as 1940s mobster Mickey Cohen, scowls into the camera lens in the trailer for the soon-to-be-released Gangster Squad and mumbles to a trembling victim, "You're going to be begging for a bullet before it's over."
Gangster Squad, already pulled from two prior theatrical releases due to re-editing of violent scenes, promises third-rate dialogue ("Back home I was a gangster, now I'm God"), Depression-era jazz, finely coiffed cops and bad girls with hearts of gold. But make no mistake, the movie is about guns, lots of guns: pistols, shotguns, tommy guns. Guns are used when dialogue fails, and it apparently fails often here.
"We're going to war!" screams Josh Brolin as Sgt. John O'Mara.
Gangster Squad's sappy script is an insult to anyone who has worn a uniform (police or soldier), which appropriately brings us to another Friday, Jan. 11 nationwide release: Zero Dark Thirty, one of the best films of this--or any--year.
Zero Dark Thirty has made its way to the nation's front pages of late, criticized by some members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who said the film's scenes of torture are misleading. I must admit that when I hear such claptrap from our intelligence community (and I use the oxymoron cautiously), my sense is that Zero Dark Thirty probably cuts closer to the truth's core than Washington, D.C.'s cognescenti can tolerate.
The film does not favor torture by any means but portrays the events--as related by CIA sources--that led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. It's a densely detailed examination of humanity's most violent inclinations and how some readily wreak havoc on the body and soul of a prisoner to cull information. The film is bookended by despair (Sept. 11, 2001) and terror (the downfall of bin Laden) and cannot be missed. It's terribly violent, but Zero Dark Thirty is an examination of our own mental landscapes in an age of terror.
Which leads us to Django Unchained, also begging for our dollars at the local cineplex. This tasteless bloodbath is more ludicrous than lurid and therein lies its soul: Quentin Tarantino's increased desire to exploit rather than explain. Ripe with racism, Django represents everything that is wrong with the pulp fiction that Tarantino continues to pump out. He, nor any other filmmaker, gets a free pass to make our culture more violent by masking carnage as a carnival. It's shameful.