Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The CIA Goes Hollywood: Reviewing Argo and Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo both focus on persistent CIA operatives.
The CIA is getting some time in the limelight this awards season, as two of 2012’s nine Best Picture nominees – Argo and Zero Dark Thirty – focus specifically on real-life, Middle Eastern missions and the organizational maneuvering that went into pulling them off.
Given this, it’s hard not to compare the films, especially since both share a composer (Alexander Desplat) and editor (William Goldenberg), contain a bevy of authentic supporting performances, and feature protagonists who essentially push for a Hail Mary pass to complete their assignments.
 In Argo, director (and producer… and star) Ben Affleck details how the organization extracted six Americans from a hostile Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by going with their “best bad plan,” which involved pretending the group was a Canadian scouting crew for a cheesy, science fiction movie called Argo.
Meanwhile, in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, the director-writer duo examines the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11 through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a key operative who identified Osama Bin Laden’s compound hideout and eventually succeeded in convincing her superiors to infiltrate it, despite a 60% probability that Bin Laden was actually there.
The end of both films is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, Affleck and Bigelow each do excellent work in amping up the tension to the point that each film is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. That said, a fair share of credit should go to Goldenberg, who is Oscar nominated for his work on both films (he shares the credit with Dylan Tchenor on Zero Dark). With this impressive one-two punch, it’s hard to imagine the four-time nominee won’t steamroll his way to his first Oscar.
Despite a lack of strong characterization, Argo emerges
as a tense nail-biter.
Beyond those factors, comparisons between the two do Argo little favors. The film has proven to be a money-making crowd pleaser, which is a tremendous feat for a film set in the Middle East, and it’s also quite good within the limited parameters it sets for itself.
Affleck continues to grow as a filmmaker, and handles the period detail, pacing and constant tonal shifts (the film manages to be equal parts somber, light-hearted, and tense) with aplomb. I also enjoyed the creative use of storyboards during the establishing epilogue, particularly once I realized how it played off the film’s climactic scene.
But, when you boil it down, Argo’s mostly a feel-good, nuts-and-bolts procedural with the added hizzah factor of “Can you believe we pulled this shit off?” There are some interesting implications around the edges about America’s global responsibility, but the film’s more or less a dramatic riff on the capper genre.
There’s also almost nothing in the way of characterization. The Hollywood stuff with Alan Arkin* and John Goodman is played broadly for laughs, and, outside of Scoot McNairy’s nonbeliever, the bulk of the trapped Americans aren’t even given one stock trait. Meanwhile, although Affleck does nice understated work in the lead role, the development of the Mendez character left me wanting more. The fact that such a brazen plan worked is fascinating, but even more interesting (conceivably) should be the man with the audacity to come up with it and then the balls to carry it out. However, except for some sparks in a scene where he shoots down the lame-brained options his CIA associates have come up with, Mendez is largely a muted enigma. Part of me is impressed that Affleck restrained from making his character overly heroic, but it just seems a missed opportunity.
* Although it was largely expected, I still can’t believe the Academy nominated Arkin for this. He’s solid, but there’s almost nothing to the role and there were a bevy of more deserving performances out there. I’m partial to Javier Bardem in Skyfall and Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, but there are a multitude of other great turns out there as well. I mean, hell, a strong point could be made that Arkin gives the third best supporting turn in his own film (coming in behind McNairy and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss).
Zero Dark Thirty has no such problem. Even though Maya is given absolutely no background (unlike the perfunctory marital/father baggage Affleck’s Mendez gets), Chastain is utterly riveting as the strong-willed, uncompromising field agent, who remains resolutely convinced that Bin Laden is not holed away in some cave as popular opinion suggests, but rather hidden in a major city with access to comfort and technology. As she puts it, “You can't run a global network of interconnected cells from a cave.”

Despite commercials that suggest an action-packed Navy Seal story, the first two hours of the movie are all about Maya’s painstaking search. And that was almost definitely the way to go with a story like this. Since we all lived through these events, a pure “this is what happened” account would’ve been a little redundant. Instead, what they’ve done here is give us a riveting story of obsession.

Jessica Chastain's forceful lead turn elevates Zero Dark
Late in the film, Maya is asked, “What other cases have you done besides Bin Laden?” and she responds by saying “Nothing … I’ve done nothing else, sir.” She’s a modern day Captain Ahab, except she actually succeeds in her mission, and is forced to live in the aftermath of her completed objective. As the Navy Seal team celebrates their victory, she stands apart, silent and alone. And in a closing scene that evokes the final tone of The Hurt Locker, Maya sits by herself in a cavernous air carrier with tears flowing down her face, unable to answer the question “Where do you want to go?” We’re left with the implication that the victory is bittersweet and hollow, that this woman has been robbed of her purpose and now faces a future of uncertainty and crippling emptiness.
A great deal has been made about the torture scenes in the film, with many suggesting the film is pro torture. That, of course, is total nonsense. Yes the film shows torture, and implies a kernel of information was obtained via such methods, but it makes no overt attempt to support such practices. Instead, the film remains morally ambiguous, and, it allows the viewer a peek at the inhumanity used in an attempt to keep the world safe. Not including these scenes would be a total whitewashing of the facts, and it would’ve made the film seem like some sort of propaganda. That’s all I’ll say on the topic, but for those interested, I’d recommend reading the piece author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down and The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden) wrote for The Atlantic.

The film orbits around Chastain’s Maya, but there are plenty of other interesting performances laced throughout as well. Jason Clarke makes a strong impression as Dan, who is shown to be an intelligent and sensitive at times, but does not shy away from getting information by any means necessary, whether it’s greasing foreign businessmen or using torture tactics like water boarding.  An interesting choice was made to have Clarke clean cut in all of his D.C. scenes and to be sporting scraggily hair and a beard when working abroad. It’s as if he puts on a new face, and maybe even jumps into an entirely different mindset, when segueing into a far more amoral role in the fight against terrorism.

Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong also stand out in the uniformly impressive cast. Ehle projects the same authenticity, humanity and sensitivity she brought to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, and after entering the film in a wonderfully blustery rant at the midway point, Strong brings a great deal of nuance to Maya’s stern, yet ultimately supportive boss.

Ultimately, both films are excellent additions to the thriller genre, and I’m happy they’ve been so successful, since they typify the intelligent, well-crafted mainstream films the movie business needs more of. Argo B+, Zero Dark Thirty A