There’s a scene in Point Break in which the Ex-Presidents reveal to Johnny Utah (remember how there’s a character in this named Johnny Utah?) that they’re not robbing banks for the money. No, no, no my friend. Only Republicans rob banks for money. We rob banks to put our finger in the eye of The Man. Yes, of course we spend some of the money, but surfboards don’t grow on trees.
It’s not hard to imagine that director Kathryn Bigelow identified with Swayze, et. al. during this period in her career: robbing the fat, complacent masses blind behind an absurd mask of grave sincerity, but only so that she could live free amidst the waves and stuff. I love Point Break in spite of its cynicism, however, or perhaps because it isn’t merely your garden-variety pandering piece of schlock. Point Break is such an unabashedly targeted attempt at wish-fulfillment that by the end of the film, as Swayze’s character floats out into the stormy ocean of his own grotesquely inflated sense of entitlement, it has attained a kind of sublime self-parody. It’s kind of like Scary Movie, only funny.
Actually, most of Bigelow’s movies achieve this kind of self-parody, it’s just that Point Break seems to be the only one that’s comfortable with it. Even her directorial debut, a short film in which the unintelligible literary critics Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky beat each other up while waxing Derridean about it unfolds like the fever dream of a liberal arts graduate student who got pneumonia and then decided to try whip-its.
The worst offenders, though, are the most recent in her oeuvre. They are Bigelow’s legitimate films: The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It’s not that both films play fast and loose with the facts (a pattern in her based-on-true-events war movies which began with K-19: The Widowmaker) that bugs me, though. Yes, the protagonist of The Hurt Locker goes all G.I. Joe on the streets of Baghdad in the third act (insanely illegal, but that’s ballasted by the fact that it’s also impossible). Yes she manages to depict torture in Zero Dark Thirty in a manner so inaccurate that she elicited disclaimers from both conservatives and progressives. (In these divisive times, at least we can all agree that Bigelow isn’t a very good researcher.) These howlers present vulgar insults to the poor bastards who actually had to – and still have to – perform these jobs, but that’s not what bugs me. What bugs me is that they don’t work very well as movies as a result.
When Point Break breaches logic, which is often, it only makes the movie more fun. Mid-air parachute hijack? Sure, why not? When The Hurt Locker breaches logic, which, impossibly, is even more often, I feel like Bigelow has committed some mild form of treason. Hey, that was a pretty impressive sniper shot there, explosives specialist. Squad searching for a bad guy in a strange city in the middle of the night? Better split up. Meanwhile, Zero Dark Thirty is organized like a procedural, only our investigator gets everything wrong until the big break finally falls in her lap by some sidelined character deus ex machina. If this is actually how it went down then I’m not sure why Bigelow chose to make it a procedural. It would be as if Jack Nicholson spent the length of Chinatown barking up the wrong tree in Long Beach until he got an anonymous letter telling him to check out the reservoir.
That Bigelow’s depiction of torture offended the sensibilities of the Academy is the most commonly cited explanation as to why she got passed over for the Oscar this year. This is a dubious basis on which to criticize a film, but on balance it must be a good thing. If we stop over-validating her she might go back to making movies where the stakes are low enough for us to not care who gets shot, and the premises are as silly as the execution.