Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty

Argo vs. Zero Dark 

The season’s two politically charged dramas have lots in common:  The CIA, the Middle East, Best Director snubs, Kyle Chandler, music by Alexander Desplat.  So which one do you see?  Here’s my spin.


2012 | 120 minutes |Dir. Ben Affleck | Warner Bros.

Argo is a movie about the movies… with a big twist. It’s a little bit Hollywood, a little bit Washington, and a lot entertaining.

Argo tells the story of the CIA’s mission to deliver six US citizens from Iran during the Iran hostage situation.  The CIA’s “best bad idea” is to make a movie, disguise the prisoners as a fake film crew, and jet out of the country.

The film has been criticized for its inaccuracy and for overemphasizing the CIA’s involvement in a primarily Canadian mission.  This must be a big deal because Canada rarely complains about anything.  I’ve also heard complaints that the film is too “typical Hollywood”.  To these, I say- Wonderful!

Although the film takes artistic liberties, it feels credible.  Affleck seamlessly weaves classic Hollywood photography with archival footage from the 1980’s.  The actors who play the trapped Americans look like the real people they play.  The credits parallel movie stills with actual photographs.  Everyone smokes indoors and drinks 70’s brand whiskey.

Argo opens with a storyboard and a voice- over detailing the shift of power in Iran from the end of World War II until 1979, the film’s present.  Like the first few minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, this provides context; but, it helps us understand the motives of the Iranians.  Affleck choses an Iranian woman to narrate the first scenes, and depicts women as a large part of the revolution throughout the film.

Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the comic relief.  There’s ample tongue- in- cheek dialogue marking Hollywood as a bullshit business.   A ramshackle Hollywood sign emphasizes that Hollywood’s disintegration into a place for liars and sleezebags- people perfect for a scheme so crazy it just might work.  Affleck stands at the center of the film as serious, bearded CIA specialist Tony Mendez. While people are losing their minds around him, Mendez gains trust with careful eye contact and a few well- chosen words.

This movie is a thriller.  It’s not a political drama, political thriller, or historical epic.  The politics of the Iran Hostage Crisis and surrounding events are decidedly snubbed in lieu of the rescue mission.  As a result, you don’t get distracted by minor plot details.  There’s one plot.  It’s major and in- your- face.  Truthfully, every second of this movie stressed me out.  There are so many times the operation almost goes south.  Every time the camera locks eyes with a gun- toting Iranian, you freak out.  Every time Mendez gives a piece of paper to someone, you freak out.  Any time someone picks up a phone, you freak out.  Halfway though the film, the CIA puts a time bomb on Mendez’s operation.  There’s a sense of urgency that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Affleck began his career as an actor, and he is truly an actor’s director.  The more you learn about the six prisoners, the more you want to protect them.  Affleck chose relatively unknown actors, which a makes them seen like real people in a really scary situation. With the six, you’re not distracted by their careers. The opposite is true of John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who play a Hollywood makeup artist and a producer.  The two use the color and stereotypes of their acting careers to make their roles in Argo extra satirical (Alan Arkin plays a loudmouth wiseass AGAIN?).

All in all, Argo is everything a movie should be.   It’s historically accurate, yet entertaining.  It’s got comic relief, Hollywood glamour, and puts people first.  Of course, Affleck started with a story that resolved itself in a timely manner, unlike Bigelow’s excruciating chronicle of the UBL manhunt.  But Argo is about more than the CIA rescuing some American hostages from Iran.  It’s about trust, dedication, and the magic of the movies.

Zero Dark Thirty

201 | 157 minutes | dir. Kathryn Bigelow | Sony Pictures

Zero Dark’s starts out dark.  Really dark.  As in, black screen dark.  The first moments of the film are pitch black.  Recordings of 9/11 victims’ phone calls overlap over the audio of the attack.  This gives context for why finding Osama Bin Laden is more important.

I understand that today’s cutting- edge directors want to do more with less, but I walked into the theater thinking I was watching a fucked- up version of a “silence your cell phones” commercial.  Words are powerful.  Images are even more powerful.  The absence of September 11 visuals make the next scene even more dramatic.

Zero Dark Thirty got a lot of attention reigniting the debate of the efficacy of torture.  Senators John McCain, Diane Fienstein and Carl Levin wrote a letter to Sony Pictures, the film’s distributor, criticizing the film’s use of torture.  The Congresspersons allege that the film leads the audience to believe that torture played a major role in the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

Bigelow issued a statement essentially intimating that that wasn’t the point, torture was not a key component in the manhunt, and if filmmakers shied away from troubling subjects, everyone would make movies about unicorns and butterflies and consensual sex.

Having seen the movie, I’m under the impression torture most definitely played a role in finding Osama Bin Laden.  When you chose to make a bloodied man strung by his wrists in a warehouse the very first visual of your film, it’s a pretty strong statement. Bigelow writes:

“Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. “

The first segment of the film deals strongly with torture.  You see a couple of guys get waterboarded, you see some psychological manipulation, you see a guy get forced into a little brown box.  One gentleman cooperates with Maya, saying he’s already been tortured and will talk to avoid it again. After that, the film backs off.  Obama becomes President and the CIA does away with its wicked ways.
“You don’t want to be the last one caught with a dog collar in your hand,” an integgorator tells Maya.

After that, the movie becomes rather boring.  Jessica Chastain’s character Maya is essentially a paper pusher with a huge hunch that her lead will lead to Bin Laden.  Which, eventually, it does.  Ten years later.  By that point, her supervisor doesn’t care, the CIA doesn’t care and the Federal Government doesn’t seem to care. And eventually, I stopped caring as well.  When Navy SEALS finally storm the compound where Maya thinks Bin Laden is hiding, it feels like we’re going through the motions.  They all but walked in an carried him out. They blast open door after door and shoot some Arab guys in pajamas until they final find UBL at the top of the stairs, shoot him, throw his corpse in a body bag and haul him back to Mama. I mean Maya.I felt virtually no suspense.  And I could have done without seeing five doors get blown open.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

At the movie’s end, Maya finally gets the satisfaction of a job well done.  The final scene shows her, the sole passenger of a military airplane, crying because she’d dedicated her whole life to this mission and now has nowhere to go.

I wish the final scene was of Maya sleeping in a bed.  The whole time, I just wanted her to take a nap.  The second Maya relaxes, the Islamabad Mariott is blown to smithereens.  It’s exhausting.

Jessica Chastain is a phenomenal actress and her work in this film is no exception.  At first, it’s a little hard to believe this sweet- voiced strawberry blonde has the balls sniff out Al Quada’s ruthless leader, but by the end you feel that she is totally responsible for the mission’s success.   In a way Maya’s journey parallels Kathryn Bigelow’s own.  Both are women in a man’s world, fighting for their work to be taken seriously. Both deliver astounding results.


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