Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SPIES! Zero Dark Thirty vs. Argo

Zero Dark Thirty

Outwardly, master of suspense Katherine Bigelow's latest film is all about the desperate, decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, but really it's all about obsession. This obsession belongs to and consumes CIA analyst Maya, played with dogged determination and grit by Jessica Chastain. Finding and eliminating the terrorist mastermind begins as simply a part of the job for Maya, but over the years she does "nothing else", in her words, and the international search comes to dominate her life so much that she must hunt for bin Laden for the sake of it; she becomes an animal of what she does.
The film displays a matter of fact treatment of history. The subject of the hunt needs little introduction, as does the nation's thirst for his blood; Bigelow simply begins the film with a title card indicating "Sept 11, 2001", along with a harrowing audio collage of emergency calls from that day against a black screen. The director knows that no images need to be shown to us to illustrate this event. Mentioning the date is enough to start the reel playing in our own minds, scarred as we are by the memory of the day when everything changed.  
Depicting a vast non-fiction story that stretches over many years can cause a movie to be tired and unwieldy, yet the events in Zero Dark Thirty feel fresh, spontaneous, organic, and unpredictable despite our knowledge of how it all ends. Chastain is the driving force of the film, but by no means is it a solo act; she's the center of a robust ensemble of sometimes morally ambiguous CIA intriguers and enforcers in Af-Pak torturing and tracking their way to UBL. Jennifer Ehle plays a more world-weary colleague who brings a breezy, southern-fried levity to many of her scenes and keeps Maya from being the token female in a relatively patriarchal milieu. Jason Clarke is introduced to us doing the ugly work of enhanced interrogation, and his cruel speciality is practiced in a very straightforward fashion that neither outright demonizes nor glorifies torture. Kyle Chandler plays Maya's boss in Pakistan for much her time there, and at first he comes off as stuffy and by-the-books, but we come to realize the twin pressures of violent culture clash outside his office window and demands from DC for results have crushed him into a timid, bureaucratic diamond.
The film draws us in so effectively and completely that we don't even notice when the narrative structure shifts in the last act from a montage of scenes over many years to a nearly real-time depiction of the 20 some-odd minute raid in a Pakistani suburb on bin Laden's now infamous compound by Seal Team 6. This kinetic and engrossingly suspenseful sequence is built meticulously from many bricks of details, and in some respects recalls the first-person robbery scene which opens Bigelow's 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, though this raid is carried off with a great deal more deliberation and wise directorial confidence.
Along with tension and technical precision, the film is admirable for its humanity and restraint. The past decade of moving picture entertainment has been plagued with ugly and 1-dimensional portrayals of Arab and Muslim characters which are often reduced to mustache twirling evil geniuses or mindless, swarthy thugs. Zero Dark Thirty cannot avoid populating its world with folks who may or may not be Islamic extremists given the subject matter, yet even the smallest bit player is depicted with subtlety and without any reliance on racist or xenophobic preconceptions. 


Snark, bore.
Ben Affleck's third feature as director is based on the real life events which took place when CIA operative Tony Mendez coordinated with elements in Hollywood and the Canadian government to rescue, or exfiltrate, six US embassy workers from Tehran during the hostage crisis there in 1980. This premise should make for a fresh and intriguing movie-going experience, but instead it comes off feeling like predestine, paint-by-numbers storytelling. Even if you watched the film with no foreknowledge of how the events unfolded, their presentation here would still feel predictable. 
Ben Affleck foolishly casts himself as Mendez, and he is the stale saltine at the center of this parched mouth of a movie. He possesses no urgency, despite the high stakes subject matter, and he sucks the energy from every scene he's in, which is most of them. He surrounds himself with dependable and much more talented supporting players, but they don't break much of a sweat; John Goodman does his affable John Goodman thing, Alan Arkin does his snarky Alan Arkin thing, and Brian Cranston does his growly Brian Cranston thing. Kyle Chandler even shows up in this film as well, playing a government suit role similar in function to his character in ZD30 but without any of the nuance. The most prominent women in the story are two of the hostages to be rescued, yet they are left to spend most of their scarce screen time telling their husbands how frightened they are. 
Just about every Iranian in the film is one-dimensional and often downright cartoonish in their snarling villainy. Having taken in a fair bit of actual Iranian cinema, I know that even the most jack-booted government thugs can be portrayed with at least some shred of humanity, even as they harass women about their hijab or arrest young people for playing the wrong kind of music. Affleck had a great opportunity with this film to explore the very complicated relationship between Iran and the US, but he elected instead to play it safe and rely on tired and counterproductive stereotypes.
Argo was given several Oscars, including Best Picture, along with a number of trophies from other contests. I suspect all the Tinseltown love is due to the film's perceived theme of Hollywood saving the day, which isn't much of a stretch considering how self-important and -congratulatory the movie industry is in general, and especially so when award season hits. I wonder if Affleck knew this and counted on such collective narcissism to buoy his lazy little film to far more acclaim than it deserves. 

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