As part of an on-going series where I review the Oscar Best Picture nominees, I went and saw Argo and Zero Dark Thirty this past week. It's incredibly striking that in a year's worth of film, two of the nine nominees were films primarily set in Arab countries that deal with American military history and the CIA. Yet they couldn't be more different.
Argo tells the story of a secret extraction mission of six American diplomats from hiding in Iran. The backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis provides the historical setting for the thriller, but in many ways, this is just a film about what American's love best: Patriotism and Hollywood. For all of the reasons that people claim they like to go to the theatre, Argo is tapping into some of the most iconic and popular themes in Hollywood films, Hollywood itself.
This isn't anything new; people have been making films about making films for as long as film has been a medium. And Christopher Nolan would have us all believing that films are about making films. But Argo is attempting to do something different in its "retelling" of the classic Hollywood outsider story. Whether this is the story of how the director creates the world of the film (Inception, 2010), the biography of one of film's earliest visionaries (Hugo, 2011), the foreigner in Hollywood overcoming language barriers (The Artist, 2011) or the story of the CIA agent who turns "actor" to do his job (Argo 2012), the American obsession with Hollywood has never been more prominent than it has in the last couple of years (with the possible of exception of the 1950's).
Why is that? Hollywood has been an American identity since the early 20's, which makes it hardly anything new. Let's not forget that it isn't the average American making films about Hollywood, it's Hollywood itself, rich hippies who give their income to liberal politicians and complain when their tax rates go up. Are they really just that narcissistic?
My guess is no. Many a film professor of mine (J. Gardner at Ohio State for one) has often argued that Hollywood makes films about Hollywood in times of transition. Sunset Boulevard and Singing in the Rain were both made in many ways as a response to the break-up of the studio system and the "loss" of Classical Hollywood. The Artist could be seen as a reaction to the ever-advancing "digital age" of Hollywood, replete with CGI, 3D movies, and a world where apparently films made on a computer can win Academy Awards for Art Direction *cough* Avatar *cough.*
There is some serious Production Design going on here...
For me it is impossible to watch Argo and not be conscious of the fact that this film is about a Hollywood outsider, and it was produced, directed, and starred Ben Affleck, arguably one of Hollywood's biggest insiders. Don't get me wrong, I loved Ben Affleck in this film, and in my opinion, it's one of the best films of the year without doubt. But it's just impossible to watch without the understand that it is just as steeped in Hollywood history, politics and pretense as any other mainstream film this year (read: Lincoln).
Although, Argo doesn't seem to be making that much of an effort to hide the involvement of Hollywood in this film. If anything, Hollywood is the 2nd CIA Agent in Iran, the sixth man on the basketball court, and the extra shot gun that Michael McKean had all along in Clue. What's not to love? John Goodman is good natured and funny as the make-up artist who could be entrusted with ridiculously classified CIA material. Alan Arkin is delightful as the no-nonsense and vaguely Jewish director who makes a nonsense film because well, everyone wants to help America and the CIA right?
I mean who can dislike a film that is steeped in Star Wars iconography?
I say R2, those story board droids look awfully familiar...
Truthfully, I didn't dislike this film at all. Actually, I really loved it. It's the best film I have seen in the Oscar race yet, and I highly recommend it. The script is well written, the cinematography is compelling, the acting is great, and the pacing is superb in a style that has been perfected by Hollywood over the years. And *SPOILER ALERT* even I shed a few tears of joy when the 747 carrying the diplomats made it far enough into the air that you knew that they were safe. Without any sarcasm at all, I would call it a masterful film. The ending 30 minutes is reminiscent to me of the ending 30 minutes of Apollo 13, which I consider to be one of the Top 10 best endings in film.
But even a masterful film is fallible. In a post-9/11 world, Argo is the kind of film that can make everyone feel good, except for anyone who is Iranian, or remembers the 1970's. I won't pretend that I know a lot about Iranian politics, and I didn't live through the Iran hostage crisis, but from what I know about it, people were angry on both sides that the United States government decided to harbor the Shah in exchange for the safety of American citizens in Iran. It's the kind of political move that could never happen nowadays, and it gets addressed for less than half a minute within the opening 10 minutes of the film and is never taken further in depth. It is unimportant to this film, which is an oversight.
Our government harbored a murderer, and wouldn't negotiate with terrorists, and 52 American citizens spent 444 days in captivity, in an almost certain hell. Argo tries not to gloss over this showing us images of the scared hostages at the beginning, and the torture they received within the Embassy. But in the end, we get a happy ending with the safety of the six people we care about, with only an intertitle to let us know that eventually the hostages made it home, after another 357 days in captivity, skipping over the fact that when these diplomats made it home to America, the Iran Hostage Crisis was still an entire year from being over, and tensions were getting higher.
Not to mention, there was a lot of Hollywood Movie Magic that was involved in making Argo the suspenseful thriller it is. Much of the tension involving the identity of the diplomats was fabricated, as well as the scene in the bazaar, and the entire conflict at the airport, including the high speed car chase.
It's not that this film isn't necessarily not the Best Picture of the year. I really loved it, and it's the best film I've seen so far. Just that I think it is important to think about all of the different issues at pay within the film.
If Argo is an overly glamorized and happily resolved version of a historical triumph, in contrast, Zero Dark Thirty is very un-glamorous, un-Hollywood, and generally unresolved version of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden over the past decade.
So very little is made out of Maya being a woman. NO ONE mentions it. I understand that this movie was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, but am I supposed to believe that not one of the Arab Al Quaeda prisoners would care that she was a woman? Or that government over the past decade has been completely equal to women? Maybe this isn't a movie about that, but I would argue that the very nature of centering the entire story around a female character makes it that kind of story. And while it's not like I want to see her struggle, I just want to see her do something. Maya is so surface level with her emotions, it makes it hard to genuinely feel a connection with her.
Then again, Zero Dark Thirty is so surface level as a film that it makes it hard to connect with as well. This is the story of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. Not the story of a CIA agent who is a woman in a man's world. Not the story of the role of the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Not the story of anything except the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This film is practically a documentary, in the way it is shot and how very little outside emotions/backstory is given to the characters or the scenario. In fact, the character who I feel most for in the film is Hakim, who is an Arab working for the CIA, and has one lone moment of emotion, when he sees the dead body of an Arab woman who was hiding Bin Laden.
I suspect it is only in these last 15 minutes of the film that I feel anything that one of the characters is feeling at the same time they are, and it's not because I'm not empathic, it's because these characters aren't given emotions by Bigelow. Hakim feels what I feel, sad that this woman had to die because her husband decided to harbor a murder. I'm not trying to argue that they shouldn't have killed her. But it can't be easy to watch your own people die at the expense of someone else.
The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it's hard to connect to when there is nothing to connect with. I wanted to feel for Maya, but ultimately I just ended up watching her. Even at the end, when they raid Osama Bin Laden's compound, it's not shot particularly like a thriller, it just happens. It's very well executed by the Navy Seal team, but I don't really feel impending danger. Maybe that's because there wasn't any. But it just wasn't exciting.
Given the choice between the stylized and exciting version of history that is Argo and the dry, gritty footage lacking human emotion that is Zero Dark Thirty, it is Argo that makes a much better film. It is interesting in the way that ZDT isn't, and it is emotional and compelling in a way that may destroy historical records, but rings true to an audience.
Here's to our Best Director. Oh wait....