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Alyssa Rosenberg is almost always terrific, but this post is so beside the point it’s bizarre:

Even more than this roster of praise, the consensus seems to be that Argo, a relatively slight but definitely entertaining picture, racked up a string of awards season victories and became the leading contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards because it’s the kind of movie that makes Hollywood feel good about itself. The ability to create fantasies compelling enough to make an audience suspend disbelief isn’t just a source of joy, the movie argues. It can be a service to the Republic! [...]

The contrast between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty is the most obvious point of comparison between Argo and its other competitors, but it’s important. Where Tony Mendez, the CIA analyst who is the main character in Argo is safely a historical figure, an inventive hero by consensus before he became a Hollywood story, the CIA analyst who is the basis for Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) still works at the agency. More to the point, though, is that the tactics Mendez employed—convincing the Iranian government that he was shooting a wacky science fiction picture and smuggling out escapees from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran under the cover of that project—is amusing and anodyne, tradecraft that is only impeachable if you think that it’s wrong to lie to people in the name of espionage, which would be an awfully confusing position. The tactics Maya uses, on the other hand, include torture. It’s not fun to watch her watch a man be waterboarded, sexually humiliated, and beaten in the same way it’s fun to watch Tony jauntily fake a table read for his Trojan Horse of a movie. It requires a great deal more work to dig out what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal want you to think about those horrendously uncomfortable scenes than it does to sit back, relax, and enjoy Affleck, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman engage in wacky, ethically clear hijinks. And where Argo gives us permission to revel in its finale, in which a commercial airliner races jeeps full of Iranian intelligence officers off a Tehran tarmac, Zero Dark Thirty withholds permission to enjoy an event that gave a lot of people a lot of pride in real life, the killing of Osama bin Laden, by turning that sequence into a tense, workmanlike effort that traumatizes a great many children.

Eh, this is just wrong. I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty, in large part because most of the writing about it suggests a morally ambiguous attitude toward torture that I simply am not interested in hearing at this point, and the fact that the film’s interpretation of recent history has come under such attack leads me to believe that the creative team didn’t really nail it. Come on, if even John McCain can poke enormous holes in your film’s premise, you must have screwed something up since he’s wrong about everything! Also, Roger Ebert’s (mainly positive!) review of the film indicates that it lacks a sophisticated story or compelling characters, which should ideally make a film less worthy of winning Best Picture. But I suppose that’s not always the case

I have, however, seen Argo, and Rosenberg is exceptionally ungracious to that movie here. The Hollywood scenes are, in fact, kind of broad and comedic, but they only make up probably twenty minutes of the movie. The bulk of it is heavily dramatic, and convincing in its depiction of blowback. The opening sequence depicting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is a masterpiece, one that recreates the event so brilliantly that my wife was convinced it utilized stock footage because of how closely it matched the iconic images, and wondered how they managed to clean up the footage and make it match the rest of the film (FYI, it was not stock footage). The scene is brilliant, evoking the escalating anger of the crowds and the terror of the embassy employees. And this sets the tone for the bulk of the film. Throughout the movie, Affleck the director artfully depicts the seething anger and resentment toward America, such as when a trivial dispute with a Persian vendor becomes a shouting match within moments. The entire country seems just about ready to blow, and the reason for this is blamed rightly on American meddling right at the outset (also, it takes some real blinders to argue that Iran is irrelevant to our current political moment, or that our current relations with them is about anything but history).

The movie is very interested in bureaucracies–how they work, how obstacles within them can be overcome. To give an example: movies like this often have a villain who kind of shows up everywhere to thwart the heroes, someone who’s onto them from the first moment and constantly has to do battle with his superiors telling him to let it drop, we can’t jeopardize the blahblahblah plot device. You know the type, right? But there’s no such character in this movie*–the only real enemy in this movie is bureaucratic inertia (in the U.S. intelligence branch), and the force that saves the day is bureaucratic inefficiency in the Iranian government, which has all the pieces to figure out what Affleck is up to in the hands of different agencies, but is unable to put them together in time to stop what’s happening. The movie is largely a study of bureaucracy–the Iranian version is not up to the task because it’s too disjointed, too turf-protecting, and too authoritarian. The U.S. version isn’t a model of efficiency or anything, but it ultimately manages to do the right thing after some enthusiastic pushing by Bryan Cranston. The parallel between the two at the end of the film is direct but, well, sort of ambiguous. It gives you something to think about after you leave the theater. I find it difficult to dismiss any film that accomplishes this as slight.

I agree with Rosenberg’s premise that Hollywood is inclined to play it safe when it comes to politically-charged movies. Driving Miss Daisy being crowned the same year as Do The Right Thing came out is still sort of an outrage. And comparing the political merits of the two films is entirely valid, and her points about the observations of Thirty and the effects of the GWOT seem sound to me. But she seems to have walked out after the Goodman/Arkin scenes in Argo and figured they make up the entire film, which is not true. “Among other things, Argo makes the case that humor deserves more respect at the Academy Awards, which normally gives extra points to dramas.” But it’s not a comedy! There are a few comic scenes in it, but it’s a tense, atmospheric drama. You might as well fucking call The Wire a comedy. She’s not even getting the genre right! I guess the (brief) Hollywood self-congratulatory component to the film must have really gotten under her bonnet. But after reading this post a half-dozen times, I’m not even convinced she watched the entire film.

*At least not until the climax of the movie, in probably the single worst choice made in the film.

  1. Matmos says:

    I was thinking “The Wire” before you mentioned it — because that’s another work that deals with how beaurocracies and institutions function: the police, the press, unions, gangs, political parties, etc….

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