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For Your Consideration: 'Argo' and 'Zero Dark Thirty'

At the time of this writing, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is leading the Ionarts Poll for Best Picture of the Year (in the sidebar). That may be how it turns out at the Academy Awards this weekend -- the navel-gazing ceremony at which the film industry decides what were its best (most successful) efforts in the past year. Two other films may be competitive in the popularity contest for Best Picture, both ripped from recent headlines and playing like potboiler page-turners.

These movies, as enjoyable as they are to watch, do not feel like great films, more like stylish docudramas than artistic achievement. Ben Affleck's Argo tells the astounding story of the daring rescue of a handful of American diplomats who managed to walk out the back door of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was stormed by revolutionary Iranians. They holed up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, until the Central Intelligence Agency dreamed up a crazy scheme to get them out of Iran. In a twist almost too incredible to believe, a CIA specialist created a back story about a Star Wars knockoff movie crew scouting locations in Iran, assisted by real-life movie professionals in Hollywood, then went into Tehran to lead the diplomats out, passing them off as part of the film production team. That much is public knowledge, but only recently since the details were declassified, published in an article in Wired by Joshuah Bearman and the book The Master of Disguise by Tony Mendez, the CIA exfiltration expert played by Affleck in the film.

Chris Terrio's Academy-nominated screenplay adaptation is taut and compelling (helped by the clean film editing by William Goldenberg, who was also nominated by the Academy, as were the contributions in sound editing and sound mixing), but it is the evocation of the late 1970s that stands out, in the costume design by Jacqueline West and art direction by Peter Borck and Deniz Göktürk. My uncles and aunts had exactly the same hair styles, facial hair, and clothes, and we sat in dens that looked exactly like what is shown in the movie. The cast gives a fine ensemble performance, in support of Affleck's perhaps appropriately cipher-like Mendez. The best parts of the film transpire in the Hollywood portions, with wry, insider-ish contributions from John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the latter nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award by the Academy.

Zero Dark Thirty made many of the same impressions, the dramatic account of a CIA analyst who through sheer perseverance and inventive thinking makes the connection between Osama bin Laden and his courier. As directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it has the same air of current events as her last major film, The Hurt Locker, in the journalistic mode said to be favored by her screenwriter, Mark Boal, who used to be a war correspondent. Bigelow and Boal were at work on a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora when current events intervened. Acting on a long shot bit of intelligence, President Obama authorized a mission against a suspect compound inside Pakistan, where bid Laden was killed. There are plans to take up the Tora Bora film again, as a sort of prequel to Zero Dark Thirty.

American viewers cannot but be moved by the film's recounting of the September 11 attacks (represented with no images, only chilling 911 calls), as well as the other terrorist attacks that followed it. Likewise, they cannot but squirm watching the first part of the film's graphic sequences, showing CIA operatives torturing detainees at various black sites. The characters, consumed by the desire to find bin Laden, or at least other Al Qaeda targets for American attacks, do what they feel they must. Bigelow and Boal do not see any need to make a moral judgment about the question of enhanced interrogation techniques in the film, or show any of the internal government conflicts over the issue. It does, however, imply that those same torture techniques produced the information that led to finding bin Laden, something that those with access to the details have repeatedly denied.

As Maya, the CIA analyst, Jessica Chastain is Jessica Chastain. As she was in the films where she first came across my radar, The Tree of Life and The Debt, Chastain is intensely beautiful here, and the camera loves her, but this is not to my thinking an award-worthy performance. Chastain may have better chops as a comic actress, as in The Help, but here the weightlessness of her style seems a little, well, light. Part of this is the screenplay's fault, which does not really give us any connection to Maya as a person, just as a loyal, slightly obsessed employee trying to get bin Laden. No one around her is all that noteworthy either: a smart Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as a CIA colleague, Jason Clarke as Maya's mentor in the torture department, Kyle Chandler as the CIA head in Pakistan, James Gandolfini as the CIA director. (Only Chastain was nominated for an Academy Award, for Best Actress, and she won some of the critics awards, although not the NYFCC, which did name this film Best Picture.) All in all, the critical drooling over the film left me surprised and disappointed: only Tom Long of the Detroit News and one of my perennial favorite writers, David Edelstein at New York Magazine, kept their critical heads on their shoulders on this one.

Alexandre Desplat composed the scores for both of these movies, but neither one is particularly distinguished. In fact, they are quite like each other, although the score for Argo, for which Desplat received an Academy Award nomination, has more exotic augmented seconds in it.


marja-leena said...

Interesting reviews, as always, thanks!

Regarding the film "Argo" (which I've not yet seen) you may be interested in what Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who saved the Americans, has to say about inaccuracies and the unfair portrayal of Iranian people. Rather typical of Hollywood, I'd say.

Charles T. Downey said...

Many thanks, Marja-Leena! Excellent link, much appreciated.