With the second premiere of Zero Dark Thirty in theaters across the United States, and the recent Golden Globe Awards presented to Ben Affleck for Argo, both films are, for the moment, relevant enough to discuss once again.
As it turns out, these films are quite similar to one another. They are both dramatic depictions of actual American CIA/military operations in history. They both have the same basic structure to them. They are both politically neutral despite having the potential to be message-oriented movies. They both have strong characterization of lead protagonists. And quite simply, they’re both awesome.
Directed by Ben Affleck, Argo gives us the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, the quick backstory before the takeover, the takeover itself, and then the movie. What is lesser known about the events of the Hostage Crisis is that six employees of the American Embassy in Tehran actually escaped as the takeover was happening, and sought refuge in the Canadian Embassy where they hid for months. When the CIA was informed about them, Agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), hatches a crazy idea to exfiltrate the escapees by posing as a Canadian filming crew, scouting locations for a fake sci-fi film called “Argo”. The film gives us an insider’s look on 1980 Hollywood with more than a few jokes against itself. And while the film does not carry an agenda, you’ll be surprised as to how unapologetically the film treats the radical revolutionaries in Tehran as a device to dampen the tone and intensify the third act.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, is, very simply, a movie about the hunt for the man responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 – Osama Bin Laden. Virtually nothing is actually known about the hunt itself, other than the fact that it was ultimately successful, so the film is centered around CIA Agent “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), an exquisitely sharp intelligence analyst relentlessly following a lead she is determined will ultimately lead her to Bin Laden himself, in spite of doubt, distraction, and disappointment.
And when we finally get to the mission, the film explodes into a full-on tactical military action thriller that is as epic as they come.
I noted earlier that both films have the same basic structure, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have made that observation. Both films start out with unsubtly depicting a horrible sin committed against the United States. From there, they establish their pretense right up front, and then tackle the project step by step. With each step inching us closer the main event, the pacing of the films are steady, the main characters become increasingly more charismatic, and the anticipation gets more and more intense, until finally the third act rolls around and main event hits you, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way to the end of the film. And when those films end, you could hear a pin drop.
Ben Affleck is easily at his best. Tony Mendez is a man doing the impossible for his country with more than just a career to lose. He’s also the father of a young boy, and though he is a trained professional, he can’t afford to show the untrusting escapees he’s exfiltrating that deep down he’s just as terrified as they are.
And Jessica Chastain is a stunning revelation. Having been on the sidelines for far too long, and finally getting her breakthrough in 2011 with The Tree of Life, she finally landed a role that very well may win her an Academy Award for Best Actress. And she’ll deserve it. Maya is one of the strongest female characters ever written in film. She’s a rookie agent, but she’s gutsy, smart, calculating, and fearsomely persistent in sticking to her guns. She goes through hell, surviving a terrorist attack, losing a close colleague, and getting stonewalled time after time in her pursuit of what seemingly appears to be a ghost. Maya carries the entire film on her shoulders and by the end of it, you’re as emotionally exhausted as she is, but you’re happy and relieved that it all paid off, even though you knew it was going to from the very beginning.
ZDT is not without controversy. After being forced to delay its release from October (at the peak of electoral politics) to December/January, the movie and its production team were then accused of glorifying torture and/or being propaganda for the Obama Administration. For the record, it’s neither. What you’ve heard about the film showing graphic scenes of torture and enhanced interrogation is true. But the film neither condones nor condemns it. It just is. The chapter of President Obama’s deliberation is deliberately omitted to the moment of decision. And the greater issues of Pakistani sovereignty are also ignored in favor of a direct story. Good thing too as this is a pretty long movie. But it’s an American movie in the truest of senses.
My criticisms of the films are as follows. Argo as a film is pretty safe. It doesn’t venture anywhere aside from where it needs to go to work. But at least it works. ZDT on the other hand is extremely intense, but it could perhaps stand to take itself just a touch less seriously. Obviously the very premise of the film cast limits on how lighthearted you could possibly make it, but when a film is dark and serious for its entire duration, the audience always finds itself laughing in the wrong scenes. It’s a movie set out to prove itself, as it is first out of the gate in a batch of what will likely be many videos about the killing of Bin Laden. Argo on the other hand is a bit more relaxed.
At this point in the review, I’d be obliged to tell you which of the films I liked better. For what it’s worth, I think Argo is the better film, but not by much. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that goes bold enough to stand tall and mighty as one of the best films of 2012, yet safe enough to (hopefully) ease the controversy surrounding it by just being a movie about Maya’s struggles in advancing America’s mission to find and kill the most wanted man in the world. Both of them go highly recommended.
Argo: 5 Stars
Zero Dark Thirty: 5 Stars