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The Thrilling Manhunt of Zero Dark Thirty

Just so you know, it’s going to take a while,” says the CIA officer to his newly arrived colleague at the start of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. The year is 2003, the place a secret prison (or “black site”) somewhere in the deserts of the Middle East or Asia, the task at hand the interrogation of a detainee with suspected ties to Al Qaeda. The agency man, Dan (Jason Clarke), has clearly been at this for a stretch, with a full beard, Arabic script tattooed along his forearm, and a laid-back surfer parlance that belies his skill as a highly trained operative. Perhaps not realizing that waterboarding would be on the first day’s agenda, his new partner, Maya (Jessica Chastain), shows up in a smart black pantsuit. “There’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor,” he advises, though we soon see that Maya has no trouble with getting up close.

What takes a while in Zero Dark Thirty is the gathering of useful information from suspects who don’t want to divulge it, even as “enhanced” methods of coercion and humiliation are applied to loosen their tongues. What takes even longer is the fitting of that information into the jigsaw of false leads, trap doors, and dead ends that was the U.S. government’s decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. So Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker) put that interrogation scene right up front, not to shock us or to sound the cry of moral outrage, but to let us know what we’re in for. We might already know how this story begins, with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (here deftly represented by an audio montage of real emergency phone calls, played against a darkened screen). We might also know how it ends, with the May 1, 2011, Navy SEAL raid on the suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden had been hiding in something like plain sight. But in Zero Dark Thirty, the drama is in the middle distance.

Call it torture if you must, but Zero Dark Thirty never does, which will stoke the ire of the human rights community and puzzle those on the right who regard Hollywood as a bastion of simpering liberalism. People on both sides might find the interrogation scenes difficult to watch, which is as it should be. Like most of what we see in the film, these are depicted as part of a process, a means to an end. As in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal (a former columnist for this paper) come not to judge but to show, leaving the rest up to us.

“Just so you know, it’s going to take a while.” Time is as much the enemy in Zero Dark Thirty as it was for the elite bomb squad of The Hurt Lockeronly there, you could see the little red numbers counting down to extinction, whereas here the next attack could come at any time and with no advance warning, on a crowded London subway or at a seemingly impregnable CIA base in the mountains of Afghanistan. The uncertainty is gripping; the attacks, when they do occur, never less than startling. Above all, Bigelow makes you feel the defeat of those who know they might have prevented them, especially Maya, always seeming to look through people rather than at them, focused on the endgame. It’s a sensational performance by Chastain, the earth mother in The Tree of Life and the paranoid’s wife in Take Shelter. She’s a most unlikely leading lady, pale and slight of stature, with a raging mane of strawberry blond hair, but she holds the screen with a feral intensity, an obsessive’s self-possession. Like the human time bomb played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, Chastain’s Maya comes to seem like the very personification of her quest. She’s a fanatic hunting a fanatic.

If The Hurt Locker embedded us inside the blast radius, Zero Dark Thirty offers a different kind of sensory immersion. It drops us into the badly furnished, fluorescent-lit offices where dedicated public servants willingly sacrifice “normal” lives in the name of something bigger than themselves and struggle against the same petty bureaucrats one encounters in any company—whether the boss is Uncle Sam or merely some guy named Sam. Boal based the script on his own independent reporting, and though published accounts verify many of the major details, even the smallest touches in Zero Dark Thirty feel authentic enough that we scarcely question them, by turns so ordinary (a Christmas tree blinking forlornly in the corner of an Afghan base) or so absurd (valuable intel obtained from a Kuwaiti source in exchange for a Lamborghini) they can only be true.

About 25 minutes of screen time pass before we first hear the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the trusted bin Laden courier who will eventually lead the CIA to their prize catch, though at this point victory is still years away. But if progress is slow in Zero Dark Thirty, the flow of information is a riptide, and the movie doesn’t wait for you to catch up. There are more than 100 speaking parts—fellow analysts, CIA chiefs, national security advisers, SEAL team members—many of them played by familiar faces managing to seem unfamiliar, entering for a scene or two and just as soon disappearing, sometimes before we’ve had a chance to register their characters’ names. Sometimes Bigelow and Boal don’t even tell us the names, because they put enough trust in the audience to assume we’ll have a working knowledge of who the major players are. In other words, if you don’t know that’s former CIA director Leon Panetta (played, deliciously, by James Gandolfini), this is why God invented Google.

When the raid finally comes, it’s almost an anticlimax, not because we know bin Laden will be there, but because even if we didn’t, Maya’s unshakable faith would by now have us convinced. Still, the sequence reconfirms Bigelow as a master of high-tech action, from the modified Black Hawk helicopters slicing silently through the Abbottabad skies to the precisely choreographed storming of the compound itself—all of it captured in a mixture of night vision and pellucid HD videography by cameraman Greig Fraser. Bigelow and Boal don’t overly heroicize the mission—no literal or figurative flag-waving, no panting orchestral score—in part because they take the heroism to be self-evident and in part because they marvel at the smooth professionalism of the SEALs, who manage to bag bin Laden swiftly and with a minimum of collateral damage, as if it really were just another day at the office. It’s only a few scenes later that Zero Dark Thirty reaches its true emotional peak, when Maya, framed in medium close-up, does something we haven’t seen her do for the past two and a half hours. She exhales.

sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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NYE Guide: Never Let The Party End

If 2012 is anything like 2011, we’re heading in the right direction. I know, I know, this is the year that every-thing is supposed to blow up right in our smug, fossil-fuel-guzzling faces. Mayan gods are going to rain down on us from the Great Beyond and piss into our collective gas tanks, squirrels will turn vicious overnight and start mating with our house pets, and copies of Who’s Nailin’ Paylin will be screened in AP history classes all over the country. But I’ve got news for those of you who’ve been stuck in line stocking up on flashlights, tropical Skittles, and bottled water: Unless Bloomberg changes the legal drinking age to never, we’ve got nothing to trip out about. A brave new day is dawning—and if you don’t believe me, just pick up a newspaper.

Barack Obama killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands. The Arab Spring is knocking on Assad’s door with a pair of brass knuckles. The Rapture was total bullshit. Gaddafi finally took one in the ass for Lockerbie. Hurricane Irene hit with all the fury of a wet fart in an AA meeting. The Occupy movement has opened up a Bank of Ideas in the heart of London. The royal family has a shot at attractive heirs. The Greeks are so ruined by debt that they’re going to have to start coming up with ideas again. The New Kids on the Block are canceling gigs due to lack of interest, and schoolchildren have fucking roller skates in their sneakers. If that list doesn’t blow your hair back, then stay the hell home. The rest of us are going out for some hardcore libations.

Welcome to the main event: New York City. The major leagues. People who walk our streets know they’ve reached the top of the nightlife mountain. Vice, decadence, lust, and industry beckon from every direction. If you’ve lived here for a while, you’ve probably got a story for every block of your neighborhood. New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection, danger, and reckless intoxication—a night when we gather with friends and family to run wild in the streets and, if you’ve done your duty properly, hold one another’s hair between sips of water. If there is a deeper meaning to this holiday, it has been completely lost on me. So here are a few of the gems that the Greatest City on Earth will be unpacking for you.

If you’re headed here from Brooklyn, form up at the Second Chance Saloon first for your new favorite brew and a couple rounds of cutthroat before sliding over to Williamsburg to catch Charles Bradley for some serious soul. If you want to stick close to home, head toward the East River to the Glasslands and party down with L.A. phenomenon Nosaj Thing. Or, for those of you who need more stimulation, drop in and say hello to Matt & Kim over at the Hammerstein.

Catching the ball drop in Times Square is cool if you’re into long waits, freezing temperatures, and disappointing sex. Instead, push past the crowds and throw down with the other half of the human race at Gogol Bordello‘s notoriously crazy show. If you’re a DIY kind of person, make your way over to Little Korea and wail away the night in one of Big Apple Karaoke’s super-cheap private rooms.

If dance is more your thing, there are plenty of other ideas within these pages. Laidback Luke will be doing his thing over at Pacha. The action at Splash never disappoints, and if you’re still up after last call, Nero will be hosting Webster Hall‘s after-hours way past sunup.

Well? Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’. Happy New Year.

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Help! Blandness Has Taken Over Our Culture!

Blandness is taking over our culture with an agreeableness that’s really irritating! Margarine has been applied to our entertainment and then served on a toasted ciabatta sandwich, which we learned how to make by DVR-ing anything with the word “bread” in it.

Our edge has no edge left! The sharks are jumping each other! Zany stuff is everywhere, but as a result, it’s lost its bite and everything’s been reduced to a quick visual followed by a wisecrack and a commercial break. Things are getting so banal I can barely stay awake to finish this sentence.

And it doesn’t help that we’ve gotten way too complacent for our own good. Bittersweetly enough, we’re not nearly as afraid of things anymore. Terrorism fears have dwindled, especially with bin Laden dead, and no one can manipulate us into getting that agitated all of a sudden. (I didn’t even take Harold Camping‘s world-ending prophecy that seriously. I blithely ate pizza all through May 21!)

What’s more, though the budget crisis is a nightmare, some parts of the economy have been slowly inching back like a Republican on Viagra, so there isn’t quite the same level of “Will-we-make-it-through-the-week?” horror of a few years ago. And while Obama is hardly Captain America, and he’s wussy on gay marriage, he’s still riding the bump he got when he decimated a common enemy in Donald Trump, so we can’t even yell as much at the White House nowadays. (And we’re not even mad at Trump anymore, either!)

As a result, we’ve become lollygagged cows on couches, lulled by a succession of reality shows that serve faux confrontation to make us feel better about our own significant lack thereof.

Ever since it became OK to watch TV—when college-educated people actually started using Survivor as conversational fodder—the culture pretty much announced its absolute surrender. Society declared en masse, “I have lost my mind and I will not leave the house from now on,” and suddenly you didn’t want to either, terrified of the off chance that you might run into reality-show zombies dying to talk about Celebrity Fit Club or Sister Wives as they walk in a trance back to the home base.

Even worse threats are all the talent-competition shows where the public chooses the winners, thereby handpicking the chart-topping icons we’ll be living with for the next five years. So the stars we end up getting are those who screech the loudest, sing the blandest, and offend the fewest. Please! The public should never be left in charge of anything!

The TV that caters to that public is such a ritualistically toned-down affair that on the last Grammys, the big “Fuck You” song by the guy in the Mummers costume was done as “Forget You” and sung along to by the fucking Muppets! These same creatures with hands up their asses were so prudish as to can a Katy Perry bit from Sesame Street because her cleavage showed, and naturally, a child has never seen any hint of a breast before, right?

I’ll take Katy’s boobies any day over the hairless chest of Cheez-Whizzy Justin Bieber, whose main purpose seems to be to make sure preteens’ hormones don’t get too excited (and his publicized romance with Selena Gomez is rotting my teeth, by the way). Still, I’d take him over the other biggest musical cliché for years now: a female singer wailing some monotonous refrain, segueing to a rapper barking half-rhymes about respect and shit, then ceding it back to the chanteuse, who trills the refrain in a vocoderized higher key.

And movies are totally off-key! For one thing, half of them are sequels—there are 37 of them this year, the vast majority of them loudly proving the law of diminishing returns. For another, most animated films are basically sitcoms overstuffed with pop-cultural references from two years ago and an occasional song thrown in for Oscar consideration. Even indies are suffering from terminal blandness, since their oddball-finds-love-against-all-odds theme hasn’t seemed fresh since Marty came out.

You’d think that at least on Broadway, producers would have the courage of their lack of convictions, but no! They treat ticket buyers like tranquilized sheep, helping foster the parade of revivals and jukebox shows that will never go out of fashion because the material is so achingly familiar. Every generation gets the culture it deserves—but does it have to be the same as the last generation’s?

Even my beloved gays are blander than watered-down Thai noodles nowadays. With the help of Glee and Gaga, they’ve assimilated to the point of almost being commonplace! They even go on dates and actually get to know each other and plan to get married! Basically, they want to be my parents! This is all wonderful, of course, but shameful feelings were one of the few things we could uniquely lord over the heteros, and now they’re going the way of last season’s Thom Browne jackets. Oppression sucks, but it’s a great aphrodisiac.

But the most edge-shattering development of all is the way everyone on earth is now a sitcom-level snarker, sending out tweets and comments with a crushing obviousness: “Weiner is a pig!” “Murdoch is sleazy!” “The Bachmanns have issues!” Now that every last soul on the planet can shout their watercooler-level eye rolls, the mass banality has become appalling. I wanted to be the only one!

But wait, there’s finally some new hope for our culture! ABC recently picked up a pilot called Good Christian Bitches, and I’m popping open some edgy champagne. Whoops, too soon. The show is now called Good Christian Belles. Pouring the champagne on my margarine sandwich.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Osama bin Laden’s Death Doesn’t Solve Everything. But It Helps.

I remember a day with few clouds, a brilliant sun.

I used to live in an apartment that overlooked the Hudson river. I was holding a cup of coffee looking out the window. Just then, a passenger jet flew by. I said to myself, “That plane is low.” But I didn’t register the significance of that right away.

Back then, I was riding my rickety Miyata bicycle to work in Brooklyn federal court. I thought nothing of that low plane, until I turned to 14th Street and saw the towers on fire. For some reason, I thought it was something like an accident. Americans didn’t believe anyone would attack us, even after 1993. But both towers? Impossible.

I pedaled down toward Chambers and West streets. I remember the river of people, cast in ashes, walking up the bike path next to the West Side Highway, ashen, dust-choked, terrified.

I remember a police officer firing his weapon in the air to move a recalcitrant motorist. “Move your fucking car!” he screamed. At that moment, the first tower gave a vast, sickly rumble and fell. A police officer yelled, “Go, go, go,” and everyone ran, me included.

I circled back to Chambers and West, and then the second tower fell, and this time I slipped past the police cordon and made my way toward the damage.

I remember a colleague dressed in purple and white emerging from the smoke and waving. Behind him, debris from the towers had ripped the face off 7 World Trade Center.

I remember encountering a firefighter confused and injured and alone, dazed and covered in dust, talking to himself.

I remember other firefighters stretching a hose from the river toward the fires.

I remember a grief-stricken firefighter wielding an iron bar like a club against a circle of foreign photographers. “Get the fuck out of here,” he screamed.

I remember Pete Hayden, one of the few senior Fire Department officials to survive the collapses, climbing on a rig and addressing several dozen firefighters. “OK, let’s see who we have left,” he said. I remember a firefighter reciting a list of the companies that were gone.

I remember a pile of roasted cash lying on Liberty Street that nobody would touch.

I remember three paramedics sitting on the sidewalk in exhaustion. No, they didn’t feel like talking.

I remember a firefighter talking on the last working pay phone behind the World Financial Center, trying to tell his son what had happened.

I remember seven bodies brought initially from the wreckage. They had been covered in blood-soaked sheets. Adults so crushed they had become child-sized, they were left on the sidewalk under a pedestrian bridge at the World Financial Center, while a temporary morgue was set up a few blocks away.

I remember sharing a set of headphones with someone and listening to President Bush’s speech that night, words that began the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

I remember leaving to go home sometime after 2 a.m., as a column of grim-faced firefighters arrived to relieve their brethren.

I remember asking a fellow reporter how I looked, and he just laughed and said, “Forget about it.”

I remember reaching my apartment and embracing my wife. She was so happy I was alive. It was only then, when I saw the videos of the planes striking the tower, that I felt that sense of shock all over again. It took at least an hour in the shower to scrub the chalky white dust off my body.

I remember that I got up the next morning and went back to work, but I couldn’t get back into the site. Mayor Giuliani dubbed it a crime scene and sealed it. Meanwhile, he and his aides gave guided tours to dignitaries and celebrities.

A fellow reporter told me how he waited at St. Vincent’s Hospital for an expected flood of wounded, but few people came—save the terrified relatives and friends of the dead and missing.

More than 2,750 people were killed, including 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, and 23 NYPD cops, including John Perry, a man that I knew. The fires burned for three months.

The toxic nature of the site—the dust and gases—contributed to illnesses and deaths among thousands of police officers, firefighters, and construction workers. But the government resisted the warning bells for years, until the damage was done.

I remember the outpouring of support and the flood of volunteers who arrived in Manhattan. I remember spending the next evening at the Police Academy and watching Giuliani embrace a woman who was looking for her paramedic husband. She handed him a photograph, and he said a few quiet words to her.

I remember sitting with construction workers in a makeshift cafeteria and listening to them talk about their back-breaking work on the pile. I remember interviewing shop owners who said their stores had been looted in the days and weeks that followed the collapses.

I remember interviewing a fire safety worker at the trade center, who had saved himself from death by crawling under
a truck.

I remember traveling to Circleville, New York, to interview a man who had worked at the towers, but who refused to set foot back inside Manhattan. He had moved his family to Circleville because it was outside the blast radius of a nuclear explosion.

I remember interviewing relatives of the dead, and helping to perpetuate their very public grieving process. In hindsight, I wish we reporters had left them alone. Instead, year after year, we go back to them and ask them once again, “How did it feel?” I was actually glad when, almost two years later, my newspaper took me off the 9/11 beat.

Today, the site is a construction zone, and unfortunately, a kind of ghoulish tourist attraction.

Ten years later, Osama bin Laden is finally dead, and I have to admit feeling satisfied, and astonished that all these memories came back so clearly as if no time had passed at all.

grayman@villagevoice.com

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Al-Qaeda’s Teddy Bear Stars in Clifford Chase’s Winkie

First came Carlos the Jackal, the Unabomber, and Osama Bin Laden. Now, America can add another name to the list of public enemies—Winkie the Bear. Yes, fellow citizens: According to spooks and G-men hell-bent on his execution, that floppy stuffed animal we see parked on a stool center stage is a creature no one ought to love. He might look innocent—even squeezable. But classified allegations say this master of disguise actually plots death for lawful civilians because he secretly hates our “way of life.”

In Clifford Chase’s Winkie, Matt Pelfrey’s adaptation of that post-9/11 novel, Homeland Security captures, tortures, and prosecutes this long-suffering teddy. The comedy starts out as courtroom-based political satire, with paranoid CIA operatives and fear-mongering officials stoking public hatred. Via flashbacks to hooded renditions and “enhanced” interrogations, the play alludes—shrilly and often—to the so-called Global War on Terror and its cynical Orwellian vocabulary. Stars-and-stripes cover the upstage wall, reinforcing the obvious.

But if you bear with it, this dark caper eventually eclipses the pseudo-Brechtian overkill. Under Joe Tantalo’s sharp direction, Godlight Theatre Company’s peppy production gets a lot of mileage from its narrative frame—one of those hour-long MSNBC “investigative” reports on the incident. Elliot Hill portrays the special’s breathless British host with a pitch-perfect ear for our fatuous broadcast media, stepping in and out of the shadows to comment with appropriately hilarious pomposity.

The turning point, however, falls later, when Winkie decides to break his stoic silence and tell his story. (Nick Paglino, who doubles as Winkie’s distraught owner, puppeteers and voices the role suggestively.) The teddy’s fantastical monologue steers the play into a much-needed new dimension—ursine allegory, perhaps?—with surprising emotional power. At last, the piece seems to channel all those animal emblems from modern literature—Kafka’s cockroach, Bulgakov’s black cat—as it makes a refreshing dip into the absurd. This rally comes late, but Tantalo’s sporting cast carries it off. Like Winkie himself, the show narrowly averts a dark fate.

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Did Meryl Streep Ever Sleep With DeNiro?

The lowest, most despicable excuse for a human on the entire planet . . . No, wait, that’s my introduction for Osama bin Laden. Let me start again. The most exalted purveyor of cinematic art on the entire planet, Meryl Streep loves her craft almost as much as everyone else loves her craft. Even if you think Sophie made the wrong choice, you have to admit Meryl’s made all the right ones, veering from melodrama to farce, from Danish to Australian, from male rabbi to an ant, for chrissake, with an effortlessness that obviously takes a shitload of work and dedication.

At the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s tribute to Streep last week, all manner of bright lights paid homage to her with volcanic spewings of admiration mixed with healthy smatterings of insouciance. Rivetingly weird Christopher Walken gushed, “Meryl can do cartwheels in a big dress!” Impressively placid Robert Redford swore, “She could play the Brooklyn Bridge!” (Or, even better, she could make you buy it.) Ethereal Uma Thurman—who, I’m sure you all remember, co-starred with Meryl in something called Prime—decided that the multiple Oscar winner is “a normal person just like you and me, only much, much better.” And Tribeca’s own Robert De Niro was unexpectedly funny, saying, “I don’t remember ever sleeping with her. Though . . . ” (Thoughtful pause as the crowd screamed with laughter.)

But not a whole lot of dirt was flung Meryl’s way, this being a gala tribute and all. In fact, the most damning thing about the woman, apparently, is that she’s hopelessly pleasant. According to Redford—who wisely never specifically mentioned Lions for Lambs—”Part of her is really out to lunch. She has this constant smile on her face. You think, ‘Doesn’t she know she’s an actor and we’re tortured?’ She knows and enjoys something that we don’t know.” We tried to find out what it is by watching a battery of clips bathing us in Meryl’s greatness and range, ending with a Mamma Mia! scene of her belting “The Winner Takes it All” while Pierce Brosnan competes with the scenery to be noticed. And then our star emerged onstage with that smile on, to assure us: “An actor is nothing! NOTHING!” Yeah, sure, honey, now take your award and go back to your legendary life.

Now, at last, I can use my original intro: The most despicable excuse for a human on the entire planet is the subject of Morgan Spurlock‘s documentary, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, a decent try which might have worked better with Ali G at the helm or as a three-minute Daily Show segment (though then you couldn’t have ended with Spurlock’s moral: Most of our imagined enemies are actually nice people! Like Meryl Streep!). As the Super Size Me creator travels around the Middle East looking for the world’s most wanted man—no, not Brad Pitt—he unearths lots of yakking about what’s right and wrong withboth sidesof the war on terror, though the film’s main hero ends up being his own white lady love. As Spurlock said at the premiere, “There aren’t many wives who, when you say ‘I’m gonna go look for bin Laden,’ would say, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ “And she was pregnant!

The marital institution is scrutinized in the kitchen-sink musical A Catered Affair, in which middle-class people sing their feelings while dutifully making the bed and wiping dishes. Tom Wopat falls asleep during one of the songs—his character, that is. Still, the show’s dramatic throughline develops some steam (and not just from the tea kettle), and it’s lovely to have an antidote to jukebox musicals and Disney shows, especially one with the luminous Faith Prince and the fabulous Leslie Kritzer. I’m just not sure that a small tale about whether a girl should have a big wedding or not screamed out to be musicalized, especially since—spoiler alert—she doesn’t have it! Writer/actor Harvey Fierstein adds star power as the raspy uncle who openly describes himself as “a wee bit bent” and talks to a wedding planner about “my people.” Would such a gay exist in the Bronx in the ’50s? I don’t know. I wasn’t there, believe it or not. (I was way over in Brooklyn, where most “confirmed bachelors” were practically shot on sight.) But if Harvey says so, I’ll have to go with it. Whenever I’ve criticized him before, it’s always turned out he’s as right as black pumps are with a halter top.

At the show’s lavish opening-night party at the Hilton—the wedding you don’t get in the show—I became family with Kathie Lee Gifford, who turns out to be even more fun than Meryl Streep. I totally ate crow—along with the buffet—while talking theater with Kathie Lee as if we were long-lost BFFs. Turns out we both liked Grey Gardens a little more than Spring Awakening, about which she said, “Not every kid is that miserable!” And we agreed that Patti LuPone is astounding in Gypsy. (“Polish the Tony right now,” advised Kathie Lee.) But the revival I’m really panting for, I told her, is Equus with Daniel Radcliffe. “Why?” wondered Kathie Lee. “Well, what’s the show about?” I prodded. “Oh!” she exclaimed, getting it and laughing. “So you’re saying he’s hung like a horse!” Uh-huh. Significant pause. “I don’t need to know that Harry Potter is hung like a horse!”

At the same bash, I started wishing Rachel Dratch was busier than a workhorse. (Hand me the Tony now for worst segue of all time.) I told Dratch I loved her being so honest in that New York magazine item where she said her job offers have completely dried up, while her old SNL castmates are soaring. Has any work poured in as a result? No, Dratch said, but at least she’s gotten some offers of sympathy. “People say, ‘We’re rooting for you!’ ” she told me. “And some people come up to me on the street and say, ‘Aw! Are you all right?’ “

Downtown performers got a lot of work (though it didn’t pay) thanks to the Pope’s very-well-dressed visit, which prompted an all-star Benedict-bashing revue over at Rapture Café on Saturday night. Somehow this led to three Virgin Marys in a row. (One licked the Christ child, another birthed a turkey, and the third insisted that abstinence education doesn’t work; “I’m a virgin mother, for God’s sake!”) And then came da Popes, one of them looking out into the gayish crowd and saying, “I do forgive you boys—especially the little ones!”

And that wasn’t the end of the preaching to the perverted. At my favorite bar, Pieces, the rottenest opening line in history came from a Hebrew scholar who barreled up to me to say, “I feel the Bible forbids homosexuality only when a woman is also involved. Even a gynecologist will tell women that after they defecate, they should wipe away from the vagina . . . ” Charmed to meet you too, darling.

Speaking of women’s privates—as I so rarely do—let’s get back to Jodie Foster and the nagging issue of her closety silence. Jodie’s dear friend Randy Stone—who was a wee bit bent—was rumored to be the daddy of Jodie’s sons. And I’m now reminded that after his death, Randy’s mother told the Enquirer that she was desperate to know if Randy was the dad so she could have a relationship with her grandsons if that was the case. But of course, as with so many things, Jodie used her silence to prevent this possibility from actualizing. Still, I love the woman and absolutely refuse to believe that as an actor or a person, she’s NOTHING!

An out gay, Marc Jacobs has become quite the love target in his post-adolescence. According to a gossip site, Marc’s old boyfriend has threatened to kick the ass of his new one, Austin A, feeling the guy’s nothing but a blatant golddigger. And I guess that’s different from a golddigger and a rentboy, right? Why don’t you two kids go play under the Brooklyn Bridge?

musto@villagevoice.com

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Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?: Spurlock’s Search

Morgan Spurlock, the daredevil documentarian who lived on Big Macs for a month and turned this exercise in “body art” into the 2004 hit Super Size Me, returns—this time expanding his horizons rather than his girth. Paraphrasing the title of a venerable computer game, Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? presents Spurlock’s fact-finding tour of the Middle East and beyond.

An affable action hero in search of the planet’s arch supervillain, Spurlock is less irritating than his obvious model, Michael Moore, but also less politically astute; assuming the role of a faux-naïf stranger in a strange land, he’s more benign and not nearly as funny as unacknowledged analogue Sacha Baron Cohen. Actually, Spurlock’s trip is something of a charm offensive, and Spurlock himself is a relentless personalizer. His pursuit of bin Laden arose from his new family situation: Mrs. Spurlock—or, as she is characterized in the press notes, “vegan wife Healthy Chef Alexandra Jamieson”—is pregnant. Impending fatherhood has rocked Spurlock’s world, stimulating his sudden concern for its perilous state.

A cynic might view Spurlock’s seven-month exploration of civilization’s cradle as a form of conjugal competition: Operating from a position of feigned total ignorance, the filmmaker too must undertake a particular regimen—exercises, self-defense lessons, medical attention—in order to bring something new into being, namely this movie and its published memoir-ization. But Spurlock’s own education aside, the real question is whether there is actually anything particularly new to be gleaned from the travelogue that is Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?

Spurlock lands first in Egypt, hoping to interview the uncle of bin Laden’s mentor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and thus understand the Al Qaeda mindset. Uncle declines to talk, but Spurlock has no difficulty finding schoolgirls who think America is at war with Egypt, or religious zealots who tell him: “We pray to heaven to destroy you.” Others are more moderate: Spurlock is invited to dinner by a friendly Moroccan family; in the West Bank, he finds Palestinians who reject, and even denounce, bin Laden, as well as an Israeli who foresees a rational settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soon after, Spurlock visits an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood where, rather than respond to his friendly inquiries, the local Haredim chase away his crew. Surely it couldn’t have been his hardball questions.

Theocratic culture shock is even more severe in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia, which, according to Spurlock, makes every other Arab state seem “progressive by comparison.” This sequence is most illuminating precisely because nothing is revealed, whether Spurlock is touring an austere, strictly burqa’d shopping mall, searching for bin Laden’s family farm, or interviewing a pair of high-school students. Asked how they view the United States, the kids decline to express any opinion at all; when Spurlock switches gears to inquire what they are taught about Israel, the school official who is monitoring the exchange leaps into action: “Stop your camera!” The structuring absence, however, is not Saudi Arabia but Iraq—the never-mentioned realm that the Bush administration and its ideological allies magically transformed into bin Laden’s spiritual home. Spurlock knows enough not to look for Osama there.

Where in the World is enlivened by educational animations, snazzy graphics, and mock music videos (OBL merged with MC Hammer, dancing to “U Can’t Touch This”). And, unlike the terrorist trading cards that are periodically flashed, there’s a War on Terror computer game that has a definite commercial future. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom rules: The Afghans claim that bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan; the Pakistanis reveal that the devil is actually in Afghanistan. It’s there that Spurlock has his most enjoyable moment, allowed by American troops to fire a rocket launcher into the rubble. It’s also amusing to learn that he’s not the only celebrity opportunist—a local politician hopes to develop Tora Bora as a tourist site.

So, will this all-American self-identified goofball achieve the scoop of the century, penetrate the Forbidden Zone, and track Osama to his lair? Can he make it back to Brooklyn in time for the birth of his child? Not exactly suspenseful, this is a movie where human interest rules: Like a novice teacher staying a lesson plan ahead of his class, Spurlock is prepared for the day he can teach little Laken James Spurlock that people are people wherever you go.

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The District!

As hyperactively profane as the ‘toon lunacy of MTV’s Liquid Television and Spike & Mike’s traveling screen tours, Á Gauder’s animated Hungarian ghetto hip-hop musical and star-crossed teen romance is not, as its ads might infer, an Eastern European South Park. If we must: Think West Side Story grafted over Team America: World Police, substituting puppets for photorealistic cut-and-paste heads on illustrated bodies, unnervingly posed in grimy 3D space. Eye-popping as The District! is, the overarching geopolitical satire is a haphazardly lobbed grenade too dim-witted to be explosive. Having borrowed a nuke from young Abdul’s uncle who hides in the basement (Osama bin Laden!), a mischievous street gang on a quest for “money, money, and pussy” during Hungary’s post-EU transition builds a time machine to slaughter and bury prehistoric mammoths, returning to the present to get filthy rich off their oil. There Will Be Audaciousness, if little else that translates for anyone over the age of amused-by-cartoon-titties, but how can you not admire a goof whose supporting cast of hustlers and singing hookers from Budapest’s rough-and-tumble quarters are the good guys to Dubya’s villainous warmonger?

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Rudy’s Pants On Fire

In a recent broadside deriding the Clinton administration’s response to Al Qaeda, Rudy Giuliani told an audience at Pat Robertson’s Regent University: “Bin Laden declared war on us. We didn’t hear it. I thought it was pretty clear at the time, but a lot of people didn’t see it, couldn’t see it.” Other tenets of his standard stump speech include the assertion that he’s been “studying terrorism” for more than 30 years, and that “the thing that distinguishes me on terrorism is that I have more experience in dealing with it” than the other presidential candidates.

However, in private testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004, Rudy gave a very different version of how much he knew about terrorism when the World Trade Center was attacked. That testimony isn’t scheduled to be released publicly until after the 2008 presidential election, but the Voice has obtained a copy of it. And it reveals a New York mayor who was anything but an “expert on terrorism.”

A 15-page “memorandum for the record,” prepared by a commission counsel and dated April 20, 2004, quotes Giuliani conceding that it wasn’t until “after 9/11” that “we brought in people to brief us on al Qaeda.” According to the memorandum, Giuliani told two commission members and five staffers: “But we had nothing like this pre 9/11, which was a mistake, because if experts share a lot of info,” there would be a “better chance of someone making heads and tails” of the “situation.” (Such memoranda are not verbatim transcripts of the confidential commission interviews, but are described on the cover page as “100 percent accurate” notes taken by staffers, stamped “commission sensitive/unclassified” on the top of each page.)

Asked about the “flow of information about al Qaeda threats from 1998-2001,” Giuliani said: “At the time, I wasn’t told it was al Qaeda, but now that I look back at it, I think it was al Qaeda.” He also said that as part of one of his post-9/11 briefings, “we had in Bodansky, who had written a book on bin Laden.” Giuliani was referring to Yossef Bodanksy, the author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, which was published in 1999 and predicted “spectacular terrorist strikes in Washington and/or New York.” Giuliani wrote in his own book, Leadership, that Judi Nathan got him a copy of Bodansky’s prophetic work “shortly after 9/11,” and that he covered it in “highlighter and notes,” citing his study of it as an example of how he “mastered a subject.” Apparently, he also invited Bodansky to address key members of his staff.

Giuliani attributed his pre-9/11 shortcomings in part to the FBI, which was run by his close friend (and current endorser) Louis Freeh, and to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI-directed partnership with the NYPD. “We already had JTTF, and got flow information no one else got,” he explained. “But did we get the flow of information we wanted? No. We would be told about a threat, but not about the underlying nature of the threat. I wanted all the same information the FBI had, and we didn’t get that until after 9/11. Immediately after 9/11, we were made a complete partner.” He added: “Without 9/11, I never would have been able to send an adviser to FBI briefings.”

Tom Von Essen, who was Giuliani’s fire commissioner and is now a partner in his consulting company, Giuliani Partners, was asked at a confidential interview on April 7, 2004, what information he had “re terrorism prior to 9/11” and said: “I was told nothing at all.” Bernard Kerik, the police commissioner on 9/11, who also later joined Giuliani Partners, appeared to contradict Giuliani, insisting in his April 6 private appearance: “I never had a problem with the FBI.” Kerik, who did not become commissioner until August 2000, testified, however, that he did have a problem with his own department. “When I took over,” he said, “I was not happy with NYPD’s intelligence in general.” He said the intelligence division “had more to do with fighting criminal activity than terrorism” and that “within 3-4 months, I directed a total merger of NYPD intelligence.” In other words, Kerik indicated that he’d begun a reorganization of the department’s counterterrorism intelligence operations in 2001, as the Giuliani administration entered its final year—hardly a testament to its urgent understanding of the threat.

Despite conceding his lack of information to the 9/11 Commission, Giuliani recently told New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai that he wished he could discuss “all the things he knew about terrorism,” but that he “could not, unfortunately, share” this information with Bai “because they probably remain classified.” Giuliani went on at great length in Bai’s cover story—as he has repeatedly on the campaign trail—about how, as president, he would apply CompStat, the famous anti-crime measurement and action program instituted at the NYPD during Giuliani’s mayoralty, to the fight against terrorism. Bai called Giuliani’s argument an “impressive case.”

Compare that to Giuliani’s response when he was asked by the 9/11 Commission if CompStat could be used as a “resource in the war on terror.” He replied: “Bernie knows more than I,” referring the commission to Kerik, who became President Bush’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary a few months later. According to the commission’s memorandum, Giuliani also urged them to “talk to the current NYPD re current terrorism Compstat,” a reference to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Though Giuliani thought the application of CompStat to terrorism was “an excellent idea,” he offered no suggestions of his own.

Twice, Giuliani dodged the commission’s questions about the radios used by first responders—one of the key critiques of the city’s 9/11 response made by New York and national firefighters’ unions. The city’s firefighters were stuck with the same analog radios that had malfunctioned in 1993, when the World Trade Center was first attacked, because the department had had to recall newer digital radios in the spring of 2001. Pressed about this nearly three years after 9/11, Giuliani deflected the question with a suggestion that the memorandum summarizes as follows: “Speak with Richie re whether digital would have worked better.” Giuliani was referring to Richard Sheirer, the former director of emergency management, who had virtually nothing to do with the selection of the firefighters’ radios (and who, like Von Essen, is also now at Giuliani Partners). Sheirer had already appeared before the commission and was questioned, appropriately, about his own agency’s radios, not the fire department’s. He declared that their radios “worked very well” on 9/11, “allowing me to communicate” with the command center, though the bunker was actually abandoned shortly after the second plane hit.

Similarly, when Giuliani was pressed about the “repeater” or amplifier that was installed at the World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing to aid firefighter radio communications there, the memorandum indicates simply: “No knowledge.” Not only was this answer an indication of how little attention Giuliani paid to fire response and other security issues at the complex prior to 9/11, it was an indication that he wasn’t taking the critique of the city’s response seriously even years later. In response to a recent video released by the firefighters’ union attacking Giuliani on this issue, his campaign has been trying to shift the blame to the repeater, suggesting that it was the failure to trigger this system that caused the firefighters not to hear evacuation orders.

While candidate Giuliani has also begun blaming Sheirer’s predecessor, Jerry Hauer, for the decision to put the command center in the WTC complex, he did no such thing when asked about it during his commission appearance. He said his administration “wanted a place in lower Manhattan” and “that was probably the primary reason for it”—which is exactly what Hauer says about why it wound up there. Once Giuliani ruled that the center had to be within “walking distance” of City Hall, the World Trade Center became a likely location, since the downtown area is entirely below the flood plain, barring any below-ground site.

In his testimony, Giuliani also expressed “sympathy for President Bush being taken to task for not picking up on one detail in a briefing which in retrospect is very important when the President receives so many, many briefings.” This was a reference to the presidential daily briefing that Bush received on August 6, 2001, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” According to the commission’s final report, this briefing was the 36th related to Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda that Bush had received, but the first that highlighted an attack on the U.S. It made specific references to a “bin Laden cell in New York” that was “recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks,” and also reported that the FBI had found “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Ironically, it was precisely this kind of information that Giuliani had complained about not receiving from the FBI just minutes earlier in the same testimony.

Though Giuliani has been presenting himself on the campaign trail as the person who can best safeguard America, he told the commission: “The only thing to protect you against terrorism is to find out about a plot in advance.” And thus far, he has presented no plausible evidence to suggest that he’d be better than anyone else running for president at doing that.

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Pro-Debate

Named for the spot in Christian-fundamentalist hell where sinners are condemned to spend eternity, Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire is a provocatively beautiful movie on the hottest hot-button issue in American life: a woman’s right to an abortion.

The British-born Kaye, an enormously successful maker of deluxe TV commercials, relocated to the U.S. in the early ’90s and has been crusading ever since. Having directed Edward Norton to what would be an Oscar-nominated performance as a SoCal neo-Nazi skinhead in the 1998 American History X, Kaye fought with his studio over the movie’s final cut. He then ran himself out of the industry with a monumental tantrum that included yanking American History X from the Toronto International Film Festival, buying 35 full-page ads to denounce his producer in the trades, and suing the Directors Guild. (After 9/11, Kaye nearly got himself thrown out of the country by dressing up as Osama bin Laden for a stand-up comedy act.)

Stable, no; persistent, yes; megalomaniacal, undoubtedly; eccentric, very—and also something of a visionary: 17 years in the self-financed making, Lake of Fire may be as daringly aestheticized as any social documentary since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. Despite its surface sheen, however, Lake of Fire is hardly detached from the passions it records. This surprisingly fluid and continuously engaging two-and-a-half-hour movie, which Kaye shot himself in luminous black-and-white and almost entirely in 35mm, is at once monumental and ghostly, further dematerialized by Anne Dudley’s ethereal score.

Lake of Fire is, in one sense, a travelogue through a battle-scarred terrain contested by religious fundamentalists and beleaguered feminists—none of whom are shy in addressing Kaye’s camera or getting in some counterdemonstrator’s face. Turf wars are literal. Zealots stake out abortion clinics by buying adjacent property. (Abortion-rights heroine “Jane Roe” was converted to a pro-life icon after Operation Rescue set up shop next-door to the clinic where she worked.) Faith promotes violence, rhetorical and otherwise. Abortion is repeatedly compared to the Holocaust. Doctors wear bulletproof vests; extremists threaten to use truck bombs. A security guard describes a shoot-out in a Massachusetts clinic; the shooter tells the cops that he gets his authority from the pope and that “if every Catholic was like me, the Catholic Church would have whatever it wanted.”

Kaye is not Michael Moore. Lake of Fire provides no overt overview, only variations on the same conflict. As filmmaking, it’s largely noncoercive, allowing viewers ample time to read the faces and study the performances of sundry American types. Everyone thinks that this is—or should be—a free country, but there’s no agreement as to what that means. For pro-life “libertarians,” the state seemingly exists to police women. (If the issue is individual freedom, however, to be pro-life would necessarily be pro-choice.) As Kaye draws the lines, the ultimate distinction is not between pro-choice and pro-life, but between those who articulate moral unease and those who speak with absolute conviction.

Few people are as consistent as Voice writer Nat Hentoff, globalizing his pro-life stance to include pacifism, opposition to the death penalty, and a vague allegiance to social justice. But consistency carries its own simplification: As the radio ranter Randall Terry puts it, “Intolerance is a beautiful thing.” Early on, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz genially recounts a Hasidic parable suggesting that there are issues in which everybody is right. More rationally, Noam Chomsky affirms that there are no absolute values in life. And life is for the living, asserts animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer, arguing that botched abortions are more immoral than successful ones. But at what one point does a fetus become a person? Is contraception also a crime?

To some degree, the anti-abortion jihad has been sublimated into George W. Bush’s war. But this frontline report of combat in the culture zone provides a vivid and, in a sense, prophetic flashback to the Clinton era. Early on, Kaye (who is never seen and hardly ever heard) visits a pro-life demonstration, for which the organizers have filled the Washington mall with a forest of little crosses meant to represent “the children of Hillary’s village.” It’s a powerful image that Kaye complicates with camera placement: The protesters appear to kneel before the looming Washington Monument, worshipping the ultimate metaphor for patriarchal authority. (Throughout, right-to-life advocates have a propensity for casting fathers as victims.)

Not everything in Lake of Fire is symbolic, however. Kaye is unflinching in showing an abortion’s gruesome fetal remains, as well as graphic images of women who died during self-induced abortions. And nothing appears out of context: In the movie’s final section, a battered woman named Stacy and the lumpen-looking guy who impregnated her go for an abortion in an empty downtown moonscape. Surveillance cameras track the couple as they enter the building. Stacy is extensively prepped, as are we; the procedure is then documented to its end.

Lake of Fire may be a mirror for the viewer’s particular burning convictions, but it has no brief for total certainty. “I know I made the right decision, but it’s still not easy,” Stacy cries after her abortion. For a movie that shows the unshowable and might well induce a migraine given the pounding conviction with which God’s will is invoked, Kaye’s jeremiad is remarkably non-judgmental. The movie is shot in black and white, but projects as shades of gray.


The intolerant worshippers of a punitive deity also feature prominently in the documentaryFor the Bible Tells Me So. The picket sign reading “God hates America” could just as easily have been found in Lake of Fire (or Iran, for that matter), but in this case, the abomination is homosexuality—”a sin,” per Jerry Falwell, “because the Bible says so.”

Although it opens with the cathartic spectacle of Anita Bryant getting a cream pie in the kisser and closes with an act of civil disobedience against Jim Dobson’s re-programming outfit Focus on the Family, Daniel Karslake’s movie is more human interest than agitprop. Four gay Americans—including Anglican bishop Gene Robinson and Dick Gephardt’s daughter Chrissy— are profiled in the context of their accepting, religious families. One, who was repudiated by her mother and consequently committed suicide, is memorialized.

For the Bible Tells Me So resembles Sandy Dubrowski’s more raw and anguished Trembling Before G-d. But where the Dubrowski film evoked a visceral, even tragic, irrationality—the observant gay Jews who are its subjects yearn for an acceptance they will never have—For the Bible Tells Me So is essentially positive and pedagogical. An educational cartoon amusingly explicates current scientific notions of homosexuality. Two Harvard theologians parse scripture. Some scholars deconstruct biblical text: To call something an abomination is to call it a transgression of ritual law (that is, unkosher) rather than a mortal sin. Others point out that fundamentalists are highly selective, taking the Bible literarily only when it suits them.

But mainly the movie stresses the importance of unconditional parental love (itself a reproach to the notion of a cruel fundamentalist God). For this reason, For the Bible Tells Me So will find its real audience on DVD—it’s a movie to give to one’s folks.