This isn’t a response to Ben Affleck’s Golden Globes win for Best Director and Argo’s triumph as Best Drama. The Globes are the Globes, and they can only be taken so seriously. Avatar, The Descendants, Babel, and plenty of other films have proven that the Golden Globes’ pick is rarely the best movie of the year, either in actuality or in the eyes of Oscar.
This also isn’t really about Ben Affleck’s suspense drama not being a good movie, because it is. Let me emphasize that. A good movie. Good… fine, entertaining. It’ll do.
And it’s not even about Kathryn Bigelow’s shocking snub as a Best Director nominee, because Ben Affleck received an almost-as-shocking snub for the same award.
It’s about the responses that came after.
This Oscar race has been maddening. In a good way, I suppose, because for years we’ve complained that the Academy Awards are too predictable. Many called The Artist as Best Picture way back in December of 2011, meaning that last year’s race essentially amounted to us sitting around for a couple months waiting for the inevitable. Other years have been like that, too. People have harped that the telecast itself is dull (not me, though) and that’s largely because all the winners are expected; there’s very little suspense to carry us through those three hours (or more).
But this year, there’s plenty of suspense. Much of it, ironically, based around the two Oscar contenders that are drama/thrillers, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Notice that “Argo” and “Zero” are found at very opposite ends of the alphabet, and that they represent two very different approaches to somewhat similar subject matter — the dangers American government employees face in the Middle East. As such, the reception of both films has also varied to a wild extreme, leading to a curious imbalance.
Argo plays fast and loose with the facts, starring its miscast director as real-life CIA operative Tony Mendez. (Even fans of Argo seem to agree that someone else would have been better in the role.) After a pretty sensational and suspenseful opening, featuring a number of American would-be hostages escaping to the Canadian embassy, the film cuts back to U.S. soil as the CIA tries to figure out how to get these civilians out of Iran without attracting attention.
It’s a sticky situation, to be sure, and the solution is genius: a fake movie production! But that leads Argo to devolve into self-satirizing jokiness that undercuts the tension facing the captives. Its jibes at Hollywood’s expense are so obvious, you can see the punchline coming from a mile away. “So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot… without actually doing anything? …You’ll fit right in!” Har, har. What follows is basically Bowfinger meets Munich, and these two disparate genres gel together about as well as you’d think. Affleck seems to think the most interesting figure in all this is Tony Mendez, but he’s actually the blandest. Mendez’s trite family drama is shoehorned in so that we end the movie apparently caring about whether or not he gets back with his wife (a non-character), rather than anything to do with, say, Middle Eastern politics or the people whose lives that may have been saved in all of this. Mendez’s arc here is weak and unfocused, to the extent that the movie thinks it has led us on a much bigger journey that we actually went on with him.
Text on screen at the end of the film reads: “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.” But Argo doesn’t play this way. The CIA complemented Canada’s efforts, really? Argo totally minimizes the Canadians’ role in what happened for a “rah-rah, America!” impact.
The real-life Canadian ambassador at the time, played Victor Garber, has lodged a complaint about the film’s portrayal of these events: “My concern is that we’re portrayed as innkeepers who are waiting to be saved by the CIA.” He was not contacted by Affleck or Garber. “It’s their movie. But it totally distorts the relationship between Canada and the U.S. with respect to the episode. I just think they didn’t want to be bothered with the facts. It’s a good story, which they stole.”
I mention all this only as a point of comparison, though, because it’s not like the fact that Argo plays America up and Canada down is responsible for the quality of the movie. But what about the climactic airport chase sequence (that never happened), which feels rejected from the umpteenth Die Hard movie? Or the weirdly false moment when an airport employee can’t find the tickets because the mission was approved at the last minute, and then suddenly, it’s cleared up in a magical instant? (Actually, the Canadians bought the tickets ahead of time.) In fact, not a single one of the obstacles at the airport happened in real life. In reality, they just walked through, got on the plane, and left. These forced conflicts are obvious screenwriting clichés that we’ve all seen in 100 other movies — pretty much any moviegoer can pick up on their artificial quality — yet somehow they’ve been deemed award-worthy by the WGA, DGA, PGA, Golden Globes, Oscars, and so many others.
Like I said, Argo isn’t a bad movie — just a manipulative and obvious one. What makes it more Oscar-worthy than any other thriller? What sets Argo apart from, say, Jan de Bont’s Speed? Just because it’s set in the Middle East and is a “true” (but not that true) story? Argo is a surface-level exploration of a particular conflict in Iran; it doesn’t have much to say in the grand scheme of things about the Middle East, or Hollywood, or these specific characters. It’s that zany romp through 1970s Iran! The one that is, you know, primarily made up.
And yet criticism of Argo has hushed considerably, while Zero Dark Thirty is the controversy-magnet of the moment. The endless debate over the film’s depiction of torture couldn’t be any more boring. Screenwriter Mark Boal did extensive research on the subject even before Osama bin Laden was killed; then, that became the major selling point of the movie. I’m not sure it’s possible to get a completely honest answer about how great a role torture played in finding bin Laden, but Zero Dark Thirty portrays a lot less torture than you’d think based on the backlash (one scene, essentially). And it certainly doesn’t advocate it ― torture is depicted matter-of-factly, as unpleasant and inhumane as it is. We identify with the prisoner, not the tormenters, in this moment.
The identity of the real-life CIA operative portrayed by Jessica Chastain has not been revealed; many details are still classified, though Boal had access to much of this information in penning the movie. From what we can tell, the film is pretty accurate. It depicts a number of terrorist attacks connected to al-Qaeda, not just 9/11 (in audio form) but also bombings in London and at the Marriott in Islamabad. In contrast to Argo’s made-up tensions, in which no one is killed, Zero Dark Thirty depicts real acts of terror in which real people died. These are real, high stakes. Basically, the highest stakes imaginable.
Zero Dark Thirty’s final act is a truly tense raid on the compound where Osama bin Laden lived. We may know in general how this ended, but the buildup to it is still as nail-biting as any scene in a fictional movie. There are no false stabs at creating suspense, no cuts to other characters who aren’t directly involved in this moment, no calls waiting for approval that come just in the nick of time. Boal and Kathryn Bigelow didn’t have to invent suspense here, because it was already there. And in this case, Zero Dark Thirty’s truth is infinitely more thrilling than Argo’s fiction.
Argo’s false climax looks all the shoddier in comparison. Whereas Affleck’s film invents more ways for Mendez to be a hero, Kathryn Bigelow’s makes the bold choice of excising our protagonist from the film’s final act almost entirely (except for a couple crucial scenes at the very end). More than that, though, it’s about something. Maya’s experience in the film isn’t hers alone, but stands in for a universal one. The ending is open to interpretation, but raises questions about what a manhunt for a notorious international terrorist is worth. Did killing Osama bin Laden do any good? Did it make us feel better? Should it?
It’s ludicrous to find so much debate over Zero Dark Thirty’s accuracy, with virtually none lobbed at Argo. Isn’t trying to be accurate and getting 95% of the way there better than not trying at all, and hitting maybe 50% of the facts, as Argo did? Zero Dark Thirty should be rewarded for bringing torture into a public conversation, for inciting such heated debate ― not knocked down and shut out of the Oscars. Isn’t this what a great film should do — get people talking?
At first, I didn’t even notice Bigelow’s snub on Oscar morning (yes, I watched them live at 5:30), because it was so inconceivable to me that she wouldn’t be rewarded. I’d pegged Zero Dark Thirty as the year’s strongest contender for Best Picture and Best Director, and suddenly she wasn’t even in the race. The snub essentially wiped Zero Dark Thirty out of the Best Picture race, too, because it means Academy voters are giving the film less consideration than I (and many others) had guessed.
But why? The film has a score of 95 on Metacritic; compare that to Argo, Lincoln, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, which all have an 86, or Silver Linings Playbook’s 81, or Life of Pi’s 79. (The only real competition in this category is Amour’s 93, but that’s a highly unlikely Best Picture winner.) It’s been a hit both in limited and wide release, scoring #1 at the box office last weekend. It has also appeared on more critics’ Top Ten lists than any other film this year.
Not that critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations go hand-in-hand, but clearly Bigelow has done something right. And yet it was Argo and Affleck who triumphed at the Golden Globes, keeping Argo as a serious dark horse in the Best Picture race. The Oscar snub actually could have helped Argo’s chances, letting Ben Affleck look like a bit of an underdog now. (The reason he may not have been nominated in the first place is that voters didn’t want to further inflate his superstar ego.) The Hollywood Reporter has written about the possibility of a write-in campaign to get Affleck nominated after the fact. A write-in hasn’t occurred since 1934, and seriously? Is Ben Affleck really the most egregious snub in the past 80 years? Is this the Oscar wrong that must be corrected? Who here thinks that, a decade from now, Argo is the 2012 film we’ll still be talking about?
The idea of a write-in is silly, even if the article were championing Bigelow instead of Affleck. I’m not sure if voters put off watching Zero Dark Thirty because of the heavy subject matter, or thought Bigelow had won an Oscar too recently (for 2009’s The Hurt Locker), or felt uneasy about that silly torture controversy. A look at the actual contenders reveals some pretty legit picks, despite the snubs ― Steven Spielberg, whose prestige pic largely goes against the grain of his typical sensibilities; Ang Lee, who made the technically wondrous (if a bit frivolous) Life of Pi; Michael Haneke, an Austrian auteur who is nothing if not severe, even when the subject is a slow death at an old age; David O. Russell, whose Silver Linings Playbook took an offbeat approach to a story that could have been painfully by-the-numbers; and Behn Zeitlin, a first-time filmmaker and unlikely nominee who created a boldly original (and willfully messy) film in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Snubs aside, it’s difficult to argue too hard against any of these. The real reason Affleck and Bigelow were left out of the race is because there were too many directors doing solid work in 2012 ― take away those five nominees, and there are still Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tom Hooper, Bigelow, and Affleck, another formidable quintet of contenders. (All deserving? That’s another story.)
In my opinion, Bigelow made one of few masterpieces of this millennium, a film that boldly captured the mood of our times by telling its most defining story. And Ben Affleck made Argo. I can’t for the life of me fathom how anyone could find Argo to be a superior film to Zero Dark Thirty, especially when you line them up based on their similarities. Award-worthy lead performance? Check for Jessica Chastain, no check for Ben Affleck. Spell-bending, tense, and believable third act? That’s Zero Dark Thirty again. Thought-provoking and maybe even a little cathartic? Ditto. Factual accuracy? Zero has the edge, at least. Argo? Kinda fun, though.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, along with producer George Clooney, are essentially the toast of the town at the moment, with the Globes win putting Argo back in the Best Picture conversation. It faces serious competition from Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, along with the beloved Beasts of the Southern Wild. (People who like that movie really, really like it.) Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, is essentially out of that race in most minds. (Along with Les Miserables, the other would-be juggernaut that has taken a hit from that Best Director snub.)
It’s certainly not impossible that any of these could pull a victory out of the ether, because it’s that kind of year. Suspenseful. And as good as it is, it’d be kind of a shame if front-runner Lincoln, the stately Oscar bait we all saw coming from a mile away and thought was too safe and predictable in this exciting year, ended up being Best Picture after all, with so many more daring contenders. But it would feel like a more honest, genuine, and deserved win than Argo.
In conclusion, Zero Dark Thirty is a better film than Argo. It just is. I’m sorry, but that’s a fact and you have to accept it. Last year’s Oscar race saw big wins for The Artist and Hugo, two perfectly entertaining films about Hollywood patting its own back. They were nostalgic looks back at the old ways of moviemaking.
This year, by contrast, is shiny and new. The Best Picture contenders are bold and distinct ― even Lincoln, which is maybe the talkiest, least action-packed movie to ever gross over $150 million domestically (and counting).
Except Argo. Argo is formulaic, and, like The Artist and Hugo, yet another film about the great things Hollywood can do. Must we really go through that again at the Oscars?
There’s a much better way to honor the great things Hollywood can do — go see Zero Dark Thirty.