dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, USA
Zero Dark Thirty
dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012, USA
The bottom line: It has become fashionable to debate the “morality” of the torture depicted in the masterful Zero Dark Thirty, so why have the racism and xenophobia of the middlebrow Argo gotten a free pass?
Now playing in theaters everywhere is Argo, the third directorial effort from actor-turned-filmmaker Ben Affleck and an audience and critical favorite that has been running continuously since its debut last October. Also now playing everywhere, after an Oscar-qualifying limited run in New York and L.A. last month, is Zero Dark Thirty, the new film from screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow (the Oscar-winning team behind The Hurt Locker). The movies have some uncanny superficial similarities: both are fact-based thrillers that detail secret CIA missions in the Middle East, both were scored by the great French composer Alexandre Desplat, and both have been positioned by their respective studios to rack up multiple Oscar nominations when they are announced on Thursday. But it is even more interesting to consider how the films differ: one of them reinforces cinematic stereotypes about Middle Easterners in order to milk suspense from a scenario that is as jingoistic as it is generic, while the other is a grave, morally complex work of art that challenges audience preconceptions about the “war on terror” and American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Incredibly, between the two movies, only Zero Dark Thirty has generated controversy in the American media. This may be in part because its subject, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, still feels current and is therefore likely to have viewers with political axes to grind looking to have their worst fears confirmed. By contrast, the subject of Argo, the rescue of American diplomats from Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, feels as distant and foreign as the fake sci-fi movie that gives Affleck’s film its title. It may also have something to do with the fact that the CIA agents in Argo use good-old fashioned intelligence and cleverness (and not anything as upsetting as torture) to defeat their Iranian opponents. But I also think there may be something more insidious going on: after decades of conditioning, are American viewers more comfortable seeing Middle Eastern men portrayed as one-dimensional villains – hyper-masculine, swarthy and bearded but also primitive, simple-minded and easily fooled? This is a Hollywood stereotype that has its roots in the silent era (e.g., The Son of the Sheik) but might be best exemplified by the sword-wielding Arab who is gunned down by Indiana Jones in the biggest laugh-getting moment of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Significantly, this is a view of Middle Easterners offered by Argo but not Zero Dark Thirty.
Ben Affleck is too talented of a director for me to pan Argo outright but I find the outpouring of critical love for it somewhat puzzling since it also strikes me as the least interesting of his three movies. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck’s first and second features respectively, are taut, character-based crime films that feature evocative and appealing uses of their Boston locations (which, not coincidentally, are Affleck’s old stomping grounds). The globe-trotting Argo may be more ambitious in terms of subject matter but, of the three movies, it is also, surprisingly, the most devoid of moral complexity. On the plus side, Argo is undeniably a well-crafted, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment that features a strong ensemble cast. But even the film’s most ostensibly entertaining elements – particularly the comic relief (most of which comes from Alan Arkin as a shrewd B-film producer) and vaguely-sketched romance subplot (Affleck’s CIA operative Tony Mendez is having some sort of marital trouble) – seem dubious for the way they make a simplistic story of American heroes versus Persian villains more easily palatable.
I think that a Zodiac/Social Network-level David Fincher would be required to fully do justice to Argo‘s ambitious story material. By contrast, Affleck avoids the more distanced, clinical approach that a Fincher would bring and goes overboard in trying to manipulate viewer emotions instead. Particularly regrettable are the way he attempts to generate the maximum suspense possible for every single scenario (e.g., John Goodman’s character picking up his phone at the exact moment the Iranian cop calling on the other end of the line is getting ready to set his receiver down, the big action climax of Iranian police cars chasing a plane down an airport runway, etc.), and then piles on multiple sappy-happy endings: not only does Mendez save the day professionally, we also see him score a huge measure of personal redemption in a ridiculous coda where he reunites with his estranged wife, a character who has been previously absent from the film entirely.
Much of the praise heaped on Argo has been aimed at its handsome and elaborate production design and yet, while it is clear that the filmmakers spent a lot of money recreating the late-1970s milieu, I was also never able to once forget that I was watching a “period piece.” I would even say that Affleck and Co. seem to be winking at the audience in their show-offy parade of copious facial hair, Coke-bottle glasses and retro-cool/tacky thrift-store clothes. Predictably, Affleck contrasts his all-American, Scooby Doo-looking protagonists with the humorless – and more bureaucratically-dressed – Iranians. Then, weirdly, as the film progresses, Affleck seems to increasingly depict his male Iranian characters as nothing but bearded, wild-eyed maniacs whose sole reason for being is apparently to sniff out any Americans who might be trying to either enter or leave their country. (The least-offensive portrayal in this regard comes from a welcome cameo by Rafi Pitts, an Iranian writer/director whose terrific 2010 thriller The Hunter uses the Ayatollah’s regime as the backdrop for something far subtler and more politically incisive.)
Also significant is how Affleck minimizes the role that Canadians played in the real-life covert rescue mission that inspired his story; Affleck’s heroes consist solely of American CIA agents working in concert with Hollywood filmmakers. If Argo does ultimately win the Best Picture Oscar, as some pundits are predicting, it will likely be because of the way that it celebrates the ingenuity of Hollywood, much like last year’s Best Picture winner The Artist did (albeit in a very different way). “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Arkin’s Lester Siegel, a composite character based on several real Hollywood producers, in one of the film’s key lines of dialogue. That Siegel’s “fake hit” fools the Iranian authorities (and is thus central to the success of the CIA’s rescue mission) is presented as the ultimate triumph of both Hollywood and America, a point rammed home in Argo‘s feel-good final shot: a close-up of Star Wars action figures on a shelf in the bedroom of Mendez’s pre-adolescent son. Is this what the CIA has been fighting to preserve and thus allowing to perpetuate? Not anything so idealistic as “freedom” but . . . corporate commercialism? I’ve tried hard but can’t come up with a less-offensive interpretation of what this shot might mean.
While a movie that climaxes with the killing of Osama bin Laden might have been made in a spirit of “America, fuck yeah!” by some Hollywood filmmakers, this is pointedly not the case with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that uses scrupulous research not to flatter prejudices nor rehash popular myths (a la Spielberg’s Lincoln), but rather to tell audiences things they didn’t already know and, in some cases, might not want to know. Zero Dark Thirty begins with an audio montage over a black screen – a bold device that calls to mind a similar scene in Zodiac, a movie with which Bigelow’s film has several intriguing parallels. The audio montage consists of phone calls made from inside hijacked airliners and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the logical beginning of the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. While some viewers have cried “too soon” at Bigelow’s use of this audio as a building block for her narrative, I think there is something refreshing about her attempt to merge real world tragedy with the tropes of commercial filmmaking. After all, American movies this relevant were being pumped out of Hollywood every week during World War II. It is only in more recent decades that the American cinema has fallen so far behind world-historical events.
Perhaps what really bothers some viewers is the way this audio prologue is juxtaposed with the first scene proper; the real narrative begins in Pakistan in 2003, where CIA agents are brutally torturing a prisoner in order to prevent an imminent terror attack in Saudi Arabia. This sequence, which shows the now-banned waterboarding practice in graphic detail, is disturbing, unsparing and excruciating to watch. The tone is not exploitative but matter-of-fact. The person being tortured is portrayed sympathetically. The scene is shocking not only for viewers but also for at least one of the film’s characters: a newly arrived CIA recruit named Maya, who specializes in locating terrorists and who will be the audience surrogate for the remainder of the film’s two and a half hour running time. Maya will become increasingly desensitized to such “enhanced interrogation” methods as the plot progresses. (I suspect the refusal of the filmmakers to explicitly say “This is BAD!,” which is not the same thing as moral ambivalence, is what has some reviewers so flummoxed.) As embodied by the great young actress Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Maya is a quintessential Bigelow protagonist in that she is tenacious, obsessive and focused on her job with a laser-like intensity. Over dinner and wine, a colleague encourages her to “be social” but it isn’t long before the conversation turns back to Maya’s favorite subject: Osama bin Laden (or “UBL” as he’s most often referred to in the dialogue). As with Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker, Maya offers viewers a window into aspects of contemporary existence that most of us will fortunately never have to experience but which nonetheless makes for riveting cinema. Chastain’s tightly coiled performance is one of the best of the year.
What is perhaps most surprising about Zero Dark Thirty, given its subject matter and epic running time, is just how minimalist it is. While most of the plot is devoted to CIA agents (played by an awesome revolving-door ensemble cast that includes Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and Edgar Ramirez) gathering mountains of information from far-flung sources and connecting the necessary dots that will ultimately reveal bin Laden’s whereabouts, Mark Boal’s screenplay has nonetheless managed to strip this story down to its bare essence. The sheer volume of information involved in Maya’s intelligence-gathering operation doesn’t allow for ornamentation and the film is always relentlessly hurtling forward. Unlike Affleck, Boal and Bigelow eschew both comic relief and a love story. Character backstory is also notably, and thankfully, absent. What we have instead is a present-tense film about the process of doing a job of work, something that Howard Hawks (a director Bigelow in many ways resembles) would have surely appreciated. While Bigelow (Near Dark, Strange Days) has always been a great director, she appears to have only recently found her ideal collaborator in Boal, a rare screenwriter who believes that movies are meant to move and doesn’t bother with the kind of easy moralizing or facile psychologizing on display in Argo. Bigelow has even humbly referred to herself in interviews as a mere vessel for Boal’s content. However it works, their partnership in filmmaking resembles a high-wire act, and Zero Dark Thirty raises the wire considerably higher than their impressive previous collaboration on The Hurt Locker in 2008.
Just as The Hurt Locker provoked misguided accusations of “inauthenticity,” so too have Zero Dark Thirty‘s most vocal critics harped on its “based on first person accounts” credentials, some of them even calling it a “docudrama,” which apparently means they think the filmmakers have an obligation to be not just truthful but didactic. It is more fruitful, I think, to see Zero Dark Thirty for what it is: a procedural, a subgenre of detective fiction that focuses on the specific techniques involved in an investigation, though this in no way means that a “moral context” is absent – as Jane Meyer and others have claimed. (On the contrary, I would argue Zero Dark Thirty, unlike Argo, actively provokes viewers into reflecting on its moral quandaries, as the critical debates swirling around it have already proven in spades.) While most movie procedurals – Memories of Murder and Zodiac being two prominent recent examples – detail investigations into the crimes of an individual by local law enforcement, Bigelow and Boal have ambitiously applied the form to an international global manhunt that spans a full decade and involves dozens of characters. The outcome of this particular story, of course, is never in doubt. Rather than being a hindrance, however, the foregone conclusion of the ending allows Bigelow and Boal to shift the nature of the film’s suspense; the question of “What will happen?” turns into a question of “How will it happen?” and the result ends up being as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock.
Some commentators, most notoriously the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald, have argued that because Zero Dark Thirty contains scenes of the CIA engaged in the practice of torture, and because Maya does eventually get her man, the film is somehow justifying – or arguing for the efficacy of – the torture depicted in the early scenes. Leaving aside the fact that the waterboarding as shown does not lead to its intended objective, I would argue that Bigelow and Boal have employed something close to journalistic objectivity (it is significant that Boal was a print journalist before becoming a screenwriter) in what amounts to a political Rorschach test. How viewers feel about the movie will likely reveal more about their own biases than it will about those of the filmmakers (which, as interviews with them reveal for anyone who cares to look, clearly fall on the anti-torture side of the debate). But let’s face it: even if the climactic SEAL Team 6 raid sequence, with its handheld camerawork, brisk editing and “night vision” green-tinting, is the best and most intense piece of action filmmaking around, it is not exactly going to have audiences cheering in the aisles. The film ends instead with the disquieting question of “Now what?,” which Bigelow and Boal don’t even attempt to answer. Many of the critics who have objected to Zero Dark Thirty on moral grounds have even admitted this is not “CIA hagiography” but something much more unsettling instead. It’s other people, the hypothetical “standard viewers,” that they seem to be worried about misinterpreting any of this. As a wise man once said, “It’s more than a little embarrassing when critics trust audiences less than film-makers do.”