Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Argo Dark Thirty

I watched the Oscar winning best film Argo on the weekend and, finding myself with nothing to do in the big city last night, I watched Zero Dark Thirty at the movies.

There are obvious parallels between the two movies: both are about terrorism and America’s response, and both deal with events that are a matter of record. But Argo, to my mind, is a far inferior film and doesn’t hold up well in comparison.

Argo has a very prosaic storytelling mode. I wasn’t challenged by anything as the story unfolded and quite frankly the narrative dragged dramatically. It seemed to shy away for the most part from anything that hinted at deeper, darker complexity. For example, the Shah’s record of oppression was mentioned at the start and the fact he had been given refuge in the US — really the incident that incited much of what was to follow — but the moral ambiguity of the US’s action in granting refuge was not interrogated. Similarly the characters were — with one minor exception who turned out alright in the end — nice and noble and good. Affleck’s character was compassionate and intelligent and got the girl, Goodman and Arkin’s ‘Hollywood folk’ were crustily heart-of-goldish, and the tension was at times laughable: will Arkin be able to get past the assistant director filming the fight scene in order to answer the phone call from the suspicious Iranian airport guard!?!!?! Be still my heart. The other thing that irked me was the ‘moral authority’ of the protagonist and the whole American intelligence community. There were very few shades of grey and the voice over from ex-President Jimmy Carter over the credits rammed that message home in case any of us had missed it, that all of the remaining hostages were eventually rescued without America compromising its principles.

You could argue the reason for Argo’s simplicity was that all this happened in more innocent times, until you remember Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Zero Dark Thirty is much more morally ambiguous. The protagonist Maya and other intelligence operatives deal in torture. The acting and the storytelling is nuanced. We get the feeling that Maya does things that are against her nature, but has decided these things are necessary and accepts the personal moral and emotional damage that brings. None of the characters are particularly likeable for that reason, and that’s interesting storytelling because we stick with them regardless of that distancing effect. There are two other things that hold our interest. First is the entrĂ©e we are given into the shadowy world of the CIA, how that operated pre-Obama and the effect of the Obama changes, as well as how a series of seemingly unconnected events and people led to Bin Laden. Second is the very realistic step by step portrayal of what happened during that night raid on Bin Laden’s enclave, which feels almost like a documentary.  

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t Hollywood-ise the events and is prepared to focus on some very inconvenient truths along the way. That’s much more satisfying from a storytelling point of view, and it’s a shame that the Hollywood cognoscenti chose the comfortable, ‘God Bless America’ Argo over the far more textured and ambiguous Zero Dark Thirty. I guess that’s showbusiness.