Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Bombs, Spies, Torture and Violence: Zero Dark Thirty & Skyfall

Two films are out for your holiday viewing: both feature mind-numbing violence, explosions, espionage, gun battles, torture and death. One is based on actual events, and the other is based on a well-known set of novels. The stories are so outrageous; it’s hard to tell which one is standing in front of the mirror and which one is the reflection.

In Zero Dark Thirty (costume designer George L. Little), we learn the allegedly true story of how Osama Bin Laden was tracked and killed. I say allegedly because, although the filmmakers did their due diligence in researching many angles of the story, not even the CIA can agree who deserves the real credit. A narrative film is always, at the end of the day, fiction. Nothing that takes place over ten years compresses down to two and a half hours without some huge omissions that compromise its integrity. We can get close to the mark, but truth is a bit slipperier.

The central figure in Zero Dark Thirty is CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain). Recruited out of high school, the Osama Bin Laden case is the only work she’s ever done for the agency. We meet her at her first encounter with torture. Veteran agent Dan (Jason Clarke) is using all manner of horrifying torture on his subject. Maya is physically ill by the end. In this first costume change, she wears a smart black suit with white silk t-shirt, her hair pulled back into a schoolgirlish French braid.

As the film progresses, we see Maya go from looking like she’s trying too hard to looking like a savvy, hardened agent. The transition is achieved with hair, makeup and costume. She wears this camel-colored scoop neck t-shirt in the next step of the transition – it’s a casual look that speaks to the colors of the desert, and it reminds me of a feminized version of a military t-shirt.

As she begins to interrogate suspects herself, she wears a head covering. Sometimes it’s a simple scarf, sometimes a more decorative version. She’s fitting in and playing the game. She comes home from work one night in a full burqa garment, in an attempt to disguise and protect herself.

Maya learns to hold her own in meetings where she’s the only woman. In one particularly crucial meeting with the head of the CIA, she refers to herself as “the motherfucker who found (Bin Laden’s compound).” As she discovers she has to box bare-knuckled in this man’s world, her costumes help her to make the statement visually as well.

By the end of the film, Maya is in full “operation” mode. She wears a black t-shirt, and a black military-cut jacket over what looks to be some kind of utility pant. It was pretty dark, so the details are hard to see. With her aviator lenses and flowing hair, she looks like she belongs. It’s a far cry from the fussy French braid.

The Navy Seal team costumes are great, too. Whether they are relaxing and playing horseshoes or in full combat mission mode, the costumes look just right. The night vision goggles they wear are so huge and intense; it looks like they have a panpipe over their eyes. It made me wonder how much those costumes (and the real-life uniforms) actually weigh – they look really heavy.

Another beautiful thing about this film is the way the background are dressed – since so much of the film takes place in Pakistan and Afghanistan (shot in Jordan and India), I imagine they used locals and enhanced what they had to on an as-needed basis. Here you can see one of the CIA operatives… and then the same guy being touched up between setups. Our costume work is never done, folks.

There has been so much written about the James Bond costumes in Skyfall (costume designer Jany Temime) that I can’t really add much more to the mix, other than to say that Daniel Craig looked really good in his suits. For as much action as there was in the film, all of the actors, stunt thespians and background looked great. Some of this film took place in Turkey, so you see the great numbers of ethnically dressed people in this film as well. The opening chase sequence is breathtaking, and it features a lot of Turkish rooftop space!

I particularly loved Ben Whishaw’s costumes as techno-wizard Q. He has the low-key, hipster-nerd vibe that is appropriate for a modern-day version of the Quartermaster. I thought the casting was great, a nice and unexpected departure from the more mature versions (Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese) we’ve seen in the past. I like the new twist – it suits our culture very well and helped the story to be more believable, in this particular tale of computer programming, hacking and revenge.

The underlying thematic element of the film (the internal, and sometimes external, Am I getting too old for this?) was a nail pounded too hard in my opinion. A spy is effective primarily in the way that s/he thinks, and there is an ageless quality to that. It seemed a moot and unnecessarily pandering element to me.

To be honest, the violence, explosions and storylines in both films were all so enormous and preposterous; they didn’t seem plausible at all. Most people thankfully do not live lives surrounded by exploding bombs, grenades, machine guns and IEDs. Therefore, we have no frame of reference for what is realistic. What concerns me, actually, is the perception of those who do.

If I were someone who lived in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Pakistan (for example), what would I think of these films? Would I be willing to suspend my disbelief and go along with James Bond for the ride? Probably. Would I be able to watch a film that effectively details the murder of someone who was a major cultural, political and ideological figure in my region? I don’t think so.

It is a tricky thing to memorialize only one side of history. As I watched Zero Dark Thirty, I became very anxious. I put myself in the shoes of a person from Afghanistan, whose life has been shaped (more than my own) by jihad and extremism. I wondered how they would react to the content of this film. Who, exactly, is served by a movie that glamorizes torture and murder, in the context of “actual events”?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” That’s a quote from the excellent, thought-provoking 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, and it kept echoing through my head as I was watching this movie. I think most people in this country would say that stopping Bin Laden was important. But taking it a step further and making a movie lionizing the people who killed him is just insensitive and potentially inflammatory, in my opinion.

I loved The Hurt Locker, and I think Kathryn Bigelow is an talented and exciting filmmaker. The film itself (Zero Dark Thirty) is beautiful – nuanced, gorgeously shot, and fabulously acted. Jessica Chastain is on fire in this film, and deserves the many accolades she has (and will continue to) receive(d). I thought the film was riveting. But I couldn’t get the line from The Gatekeepers out of my head. Terrorism is a matter of perspective, and if we are smart, we should recognize and respect that. Violence (even in works of art) only begets more violence.

Just my two cents. I hope you get to see these films – let’s keep the discussion going on Twitter – find me @Frocktalk – have a good week, everyone~

– KMB

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