Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

So far in the awards season there has been a clear winner in the battle the two based-on-real events movies involving the CIA versus Islamic extremism. It’s Argo all the way.
 Now, that neither proves that Argo is a better film than Zero Dark Thirty nor guarantees it a win at the Oscars. Its edge over Kathryn Bigelow’s hunt for Bin Laden movie is almost certainly due in part to factors unrelated to the quality of the work.

ZDT may have been hampered by Bigelow’s comparatively recent Oscars triumph with The Hurt Locker, while Argo seems to have benefitted from the Ben Affleck Redemption Narrative, something he hasn’t shied away from. Argo also has a splendid double act from old troupers Alan Arkin and John Goodman, which will probably go down well with the large senior contingent of the Academy (and it’s a partially a Hollywood on Hollywood movie, which always goes down well in the industry). ZDT, on the other hand, has an attention-grabbing star in Jessica Chastain, a little bit of Tony Soprano in a wig and the now obligatory rag-bag of Aussies and Brits.

ZDT has definitely been hurt, to some degree unfairly, by the torture controversy.It’s also been damaged by the film-makers’ early claims of accuracy and authenticity. As the awards season has gone on, the ZDT team have talked more about the small number of characters standing for the many CIA agents, informants, prisoners and so on that involved in the real messy nine-year quest. But that all came too late, and clashes with the texture of the film, designed to give you the sense that you are really there in Pakistan or Afghanistan. It’s not aiming for Lawrence Of Arabia mythic or Three Kings satirical, more ripped from the headlines, and that makes you vulnerable when you stray (as the film often does) from the established facts*.

Then there is the Barack Obama dimension. The release of Zero Dark Thirty was reportedly delayed until after the election in case this account of the president’s highest-profile foreign affairs achievement gave him an unfair advantage. Ironically, when the film actually did emerge, it turned out that Obama’s by almost-all-accounts very hands-on involvement in the final stages of the search for Bin Laden is nowhere in sight. While you can see why Bigelow and writer Mark Boal may have wanted to avoid accusations of being party political, by choosing to deal with such recent events they put themselves in a difficult position. In the end, they have dodged bias only by leaving a massive hole in the climax of the story.

Argo has been attacked for its inaccuracies as well. The film libels the foreign services of New Zealand and the United Kingdom, although it does so in one line that I would be surprised if one in a hundred audience actually noticed. But although they are both stem broadly from things that really occurred, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty invite different standards by which they will be judged. Argo’s story seems so delightfully improbable that even if only a quarter of it happened that way, that would be insanely great. ZDT demands to be taken seriously, so that those scenes that jar (and there are a number), really jar and undermine the whole exercise.

The final one of the external factors is that Argo takes what was the lowest point in America’s self-esteem - the Tehran embassy hostage crisis - and finds something positive that happened during it. ZDT gives you the pay-off of having UBL dispatched by the US special forces, but only after reminding you that the search for him was a seemingly never-ending shambles. Indeed, like a lot of recent films, Zero Dark Thirty is long and feels longer. The charitable explanation is this is deliberate, that Bigelow wants you to identify with the characters’ frustrations, that this maybe is the trace of the potentially more interesting film that Zero Dark Thirty was meant to have been, before the CIA unexpectedly stumbled across their long-lost target in Pakistan.

But none of that matters as much as the fact that Argo is a much better film, or if that sounds too subjective, at the very least one that completely succeeds on its own terms. It manages to be both efficient and charming, a masterful piece of economical storytelling and very funny. It’s not a short movie, clocking it at two hours flat, but it has a good use for almost every one of those minutes (the Affleck-kid scenes excepted), and that’s a horribly rare thing in mainstream American movies these days. As many critics have pointed out, Ben Affleck pulls off something technically impressive here, getting the balance right between the Hollywood satire and the hostage drama, the laughs and the tension. So many films try it, so many get it horribly, horribly wrong.

Part of my problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that ultimately I’m not convinced that in the end Bigelow and Boal were that interested in the search for Osama Bin Laden. As the poster above suggests, what they, and producer Megan Ellison, have done is to make a major historical event matter less than a bratty young woman getting her way. Bigelow and her collaborators seem transfixed by their own creation, allowing her to repeatedly pop at the centre of the story in ways that veer from the improbable to the impossible, not to mention committing at least five sackable offences. Rather than the 17,000-staffed CIA versus one man, this is the story of one tiny woman taking on her employers** and only as an afterthought Al-Qaeda. Sometimes it reminded me of Buffy The Vampire Slayer drained of humour, crossed with Zelig. Is she worth it, Jessica Chastain’s Maya? Is she a character needing over two and a half hours of your time, one of cinema’s greats? She is not. She is a solipsistic crashing bore. That’s probably true to life of course, truer than Claire Danes’ equally obsessive but fascinating CIA analyst in Homeland. But if you’re going to have the joyless truth, then you need the full joyless truth. You have to show the dozens, if not hundreds, of equally obsessed male and female Mayas there were, the Tora Bora clique and the ‘he’s dead already’ brigade just as driven and bright and full of theories as the ones finally proved right, all with coffee-stained teeth and terrible personal hygiene.

But Bigelow lacked the inclination, the chops or, most likely, the resources to tell a big story on the scale it deserved. The better option might have been to bite off a smaller chunk of it - for instance, there is surely a whole movie to be had in the raid (and it’s build-up) alone. Which brings us back to Argo, which focuses in on a tiny sub plot of a larger story (the main hostage crisis) that itself is brief moment in the history of the US and Iran… Affleck is aware the bigger picture, and the prologue montage even mentions that the CIA organised coup in 1953 that robbed Iran of any chance of secular democracy, but sticks to telling its characters’ story. The result is a rare thing, a totally satisfying modern movie. I am sure it cheats all over the place, but nothing about it made me want or need to turn fact-checker. It’s simply too entertaining.

*For instance, the film clashes with every account I have read by suggesting that rushed by Pakistan jets (which didn’t actually get airborne till later), the Navy SEALS were forced to leave potential evidence behind. In fact the took their time collecting everything they could see - the results provided a pragmatic as well as revenge-driven rationale for the operation, apparently showing that Bin Laden still had an active role in terrorism. Of course, the film has no need of documentary proof, because Maya knows it in her gut.

**The way things are going, I think what we need urgently in 2013 are pro-bureaucracy movies. But if you do want a bureaucrat-versus-their-own organisation film, go for the great Ikiru, which made me weep buckets.

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