Zero Dark Thirty is Mediocre and You Shouldn’t Bother With It

Pretty self-explanatory. This is one of those times where I look at Rotten Tomatoes and scratch my head. How did ZDT get 93%? More bafflingly, I can’t understand the reviewers’ effusive praise. It is not “exhilarating”. It is not “thrilling”. Most certainly it is not a “masterpiece”.

Here are some ways I can describe it:

  • Every major sequence is 50% too long
  • Random events that do not add anything to the story
  • Uneven pacing
  • Artificial suspense inserted like clockwork
  • Too. Many. Desk scenes.
  • Nothing about any of the characters that makes you want to care
  • Tries too hard to be “gritty” and “authentic”, ends up being emotionless and boring.

Consider Star Trek Into Darkness. It contained gaping plot holes. It had lots of eye-roll-worthy moments. It was a grievous departure from the spirit of the original series. But at least it was entertaining, combining the best ingredients of a mindless summer blockbuster. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately an empty shell of a film. It has elicited strong reactions, both good and bad, partly because I think people are projecting their own thoughts and biases onto the fascinating and controversial subject matter. But a movie can be about something interesting and yet still be poorly made. Regardless of what you may think about the ethics of torture, or the degrading of our humanity, or America’s tarnished standing, or whatever, ZDT is confusing, dull and long.

If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t waste your time with it.

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The State of American Politics Right Now

As some of you may know, the US is in political turmoil at the moment. If you are a normal person and don’t really spend much time or energy following this, you may be scratching your head and wondering what the big deal is. Just typical politicians arguing over political stuff right? Not quite.

In the House of Representatives, the far-right Republican Party has refused to pass appropriations legislation in order to fund the activities of the federal government — hence, “government shutdown“. These activities include delivering pay checks to hundreds of thousands of federal workers (many now sitting idle), funding cutting edge medical research, opening and maintaining national parks, approving loans for small businesses and cleaning up toxic waste sites, to name just a few.

Furthermore, in a few day’s time the US government will reach its statutory borrowing limit (the “debt ceiling“). This limit is typically raised by Congress from year to year without controversy, and is necessary to pay creditors for debt the government has already incurred. The raising of the debt limit has been the occasion for some political grandstanding, but until the Republican Party in 2011, no-one has countenanced not raising it. Such a scenario would more likely than not trigger another financial crisis and plunge the country into another recession.

The House Republicans have shut down government and are refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless the centre-left Democrat Party submit to a list of demands. This originally included a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, legislation duly passed by Congress in 2009 and upheld by the Supreme Court that was designed to rein in healthcare expenditure and provide insurance to millions of uninsured.

Props to Jon Chait at NYMag for this great image.

Let me put it into plain English. House Republicans have manufactured two crises and are extorting the Democrats — who hold the balance of power in the Senate and the presidency — into implementing measures that American voters resoundingly rejected in the 2012 election. This is not an ordinary “he said, she said”, both sides are at fault, political stoush being fought in the legislative arena. This is a constitutional crisis happening in one of the oldest (and still grandest) democracies in the world.

So you can get up to speed with the state of American politics right now, let me break it down very simply for you.

Democrats: Thinks that government has an important role in serving the public and that honouring past debt is both practically and legally required — they are normal, necessary and non-negotiable in any functioning society.

Republicans: Thinks that government activities and the debt ceiling can serve as useful hostages to extract unilateral concessions from the other side, consequences be damned.

D: In relation to the budget, has been willing to make (and has made) tough compromises on cutting the safety net and other government investments, in return (hoping) for more revenue in the form of higher taxes on the rich and closing of tax loopholes.

R: Demands big cuts to the safety net and other spending, while refusing any form of higher revenue. Accuses Democrats of being unwilling to compromise due to their refusal to “negotiate” over the terms of the extortion.

D: Wants incremental, common-sense and widely supported gun control measures; comprehensive immigration reform; financial regulation (to prevent another GFC); action on climate change; universal preschool program; investment in infrastructure and scientific research.

R: Opposes all of the above. Wants to further reduce the friction of obtaining and carrying guns; further deregulate finance and other sectors (which would make another GFC more likely); does not believe in climate change, wants to expand fossil fuel industry; claims to care about the government’s deficit but wants more tax cuts for the rich (which would increase the deficit), while slashing aid to the poor (which is one of the most effective short-term economic boosters) and investment in infrastructure and scientific research (which would bolster America’s long-term economic growth).

Stunning, isn’t it?

When Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee seemingly had a good chance of winning the presidency, I mused to some of my friends that it might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe the American public will finally come to their senses when the Republican-led government drives the country off a cliff. Funnily (and disturbingly) enough, the moment has come anyway in quick and stark fashion.

Elections for the US House of Representatives will be held in November 2014. The next 12 months will be an interesting time. It will crystallise once and for all whether America has firmly stepped on the path of becoming a lumbering banana republic, or whether there is still some hope left in this once-great democracy.

Thinking About Gender Equality

This is a topic that I am approaching with much trepidation, but is on my mind at the moment after listening to an interesting talk by feminist writer/commentator Chloe Angyal regarding rom-coms and what it can teach us about life and especially sexual dynamics. In a nutshell: recent rom-coms have featured a lot of male nudity (bear with me here), and this speaks to a broader cultural shift in which men are increasingly vulnerable and women are increasingly in control.*

Untitled

Jason Segel is not just nude. He is nakedly vulnerable.

Of course, any talk of the “End of Men” must be taken with a grain of salt, given the overwhelming presence of men in representative government (consider the recent kerfuffle over Tony Abbott’s cabinet) and other positions of influence, such as Fortune 500 CEOs and university faculty members. Indeed, the “gender gap” between men and women in terms of pay and representation in a multitude of industries is a key concern for feminists.

After Chloe’s talk, a friend of mine told me that he believed in equal representation — that there should be just as many women as men in positions of power (this is the definition of gender quality I will be using for the rest of this post). I disagreed with the practicality of this notion and murmured something about biological differences, but couldn’t come up with anything on the spot. Now that I’ve spent some more time thinking, I want to critically examine this idea of gender equality.

By the way, I want to preface all this by saying that of course I recognise the many injustices faced by women historically and presently, and I fully support efforts to rectify them. However, that’s different to the utopian view of gender equality. In my opinion it is not only impractical, but also undesirable.

Biological reality

Let’s start with some incontrovertible truths.

  1. Women are fertile and can attract the most desirable men within a finite window of time.
  2. Women are physically and psychologically equipped to be the best nurturers of their children.**

This biological reality is not pertinent early on. All throughout school, university and even the start of working life, equality of representation is possible because the biological imperative to meet a desirable partner and have children is not as keenly felt. Indeed, in traditionally prestigious fields like law and medicine, at many institutions there are now more women studying them than men.

As (Western) women gained more financial independence and as fertility treatment advanced in leaps and bounds, the biological imperative has been pushed back more and more. However, it still exists. Women who want to have children know they cannot put it off forever. Most mothers feel a maternal pull towards their children and are loath to spend extended periods of time away from them.

This is completely natural and understandable. And this is why parental leave is justifiably recognised as a crucial moderating force in the workplace — it allows women to fulfil their biological imperative without completely shafting their employment prospects. However, parental leave alone is not going to make things equal.

Two questions arise: How far should we (as a society) go to realise this goal? And what are the practical implications for women?

Decisions, decisions

Here is another incontrovertible truth: life is about tradeoffs. If you want to get good at anything, you have to spend time and effort that could go toward other things. Working overseas sounds really tempting, until you realise that it entails being separated from friends and family for long stretches of time. You know where I am going with this.

Women can’t have it all. They have to make life choices based on their life priorities.

This totally happens IRL. Not.

Many women make family their priority, so they subordinate career progression. This is one of the big reasons for the very stark statistics that we see. But what’s the alternative?

To achieve equal representation in government, company boards, etc, it means that a lot more women than is the case today must prioritise their own career advancement over bearing children. Now, some women willingly (as far as we can publicly tell…) remain childless and achieve great things. Others seemingly achieve incredible success while raising children at the same time. But this invariably happens through a combination of internal will and external support that do not apply to 99.99+% of the female population — they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I would wager that far more common are women who would love to pursue a successful career, but make the sometimes painful decision to “opt out” because they cannot prioritise it above motherhood.

The bottom line

The question of priorities is a deeply personal one. I admire women who make child-rearing their priority. Our society is much better for it. I also admire strong women who contribute to the political and corporate world in ways that men cannot. Either way, both are making sacrifices and tradeoffs.

Ultimately, my own view (ie, a moral and political one) comes down to what I consider to be more valuable on balance. I think that it is better for society that more children are raised by their mothers (ideally in a two-parent home) — especially in their formative early years — than to have a society where more women prioritise their career above all else, delay or give up having children, or otherwise be a guilty/stressed part-time mother.

You may not agree with my weighting, but this is what it comes down to. There’s a lot more work to be done in changing workplace practices and societal attitudes and so forth,*** but there’s only so far they can go. Being a politician or a captain of industry or a professor, etc, is unforgiving, relentless work. They can become more female-friendly, but they will never be fully compatible with a woman’s biological imperative. That’s just the way it is unfortunately.

The gender gap is as much a manifestation of biological realities and personal choices as it is about oppressive, misogynistic social structures. Gender equality is not going to occur in a vacuum. I think it is important for advocates to recognise and wrestle with this, not just giving full-throated support to a nice notion in the abstract that actually comes with significant real-world implications.

 

* Chloe also rightly points out that rom-coms almost never feature same-sex relationships. They’re not addressed in this post either; I leave them out not out of malice but rather ignorance — I don’t think that I’m qualified to write about them.

** Take this sentence at face value. I am not trying to insinuate anything else (eg, that fathers are less or not important).

*** For some great examples, check out Anne-Marie Slaughter’s thought-provoking article in The Atlantic.