There’s been a great deal of speculation as to why Argo should have been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, while Zero Dark Thirty just about got their grateful hands on the Best Sound Editing gong, only to have one slapped away and to be told they had to share it with the guys who did Skyfall.
The general consensus seemed to be that Zero Dark Thirty failed to engage viewers because it challenged them to confront the reality of American foreign policy. Argo, on the other hand, sought to retell the heroic story of a CIA agent who busted six American citizens out of Iran using a just sci-fi movie script and a great moustache.
The foreign policy theory is not without merit. America is still working out the kinks in it’s relationship with terrorism and the ethical issues that surround the use of information obtained using torture. The film has been divisive, and it’s director, Kathryn Bigelow has been accused of making a propaganda movie for the CIA, particularly when it transpired that the Senate were investigating reports that she and her scriptwriter, Mark Boal, had access to classified information.
Argo too is mired in the ethical labyrinth that is US foreign policy – it sketches the events leading up to the 1979 Iranian uprising at the start and takes care to articulate the complicity – but there’s a sense of a shrug in the acknowledgement. Everyone knows that mistakes were made in the past. Things were different then, weren’t they?
Far be it from me to criticise other people for complex theorising, but having watched both films, I felt the explanation for the popularity of Argo over Zero Dark Thirty might be a little simpler.
Generally I’m not a big fan of Hollywood and it’s tropes, so I was fully prepared to engage with the moral ambiguities of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. I have also seen Gigli, which causes me to enter a state of high anxiety whenever Ben Affleck appears on a screen without Matt Damon.
But dammit, it doesn’t matter whether you’re making a Danish arthouse film or American Pie 36: Stifler’s Mobility Scooter, movies are about emotionally connecting with the characters. If a director and/or actor can make this happen, the audience will go anywhere with them, suspending their disbelief to the point where they have to shrug off the milder symptoms of vertigo as they leave the cinema. Roberto Benigni’s ‘Life Is Beautiful‘ is a case in point. A gentle comedy based around a father using humour and sleight of hand to shield his young son from the realities of life in a Nazi death camp? Ethically, that’s a ruddy minefield of a synopsis. But Benigni dances effortlessly through it like it’s a field of clover. It’s all in the engagement.
Unfortunately, Maya, the female protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, would struggle to convince me to tie my shoelaces. I found her hesitant, troubled response to the actions of her colleagues irritating rather than sympathy inducing, and consequently, my involvement in the subject matter was limited. That’s not to say I would have preferred it if Jessica Chastain had arrived at the black ops site, tied a bandana around her head and announced herself with a flying kick to a prisoner’s forehead, but if you’re going to convey the moral ambiguity of war effectively, and how emotionally challenging your character finds it to be, you need to be able to convey more than mild discomfort in a darkened room.
It shouldn’t be that hard, given that a decent proportion of the audience already sympathise with your view.
On the other hand, I never doubted Tony Mendez’s (Ben Affleck) ability to enter Iran alone but for a sketchbook, convince the authorities that he and a group of people who had been there for nearly three months had actually arrived together to scout locations for a Star Wars rip-off, and leave with them safely after three days.
And you thought there was a moral ambiguity in obtaining information through nefarious practices? I’ve just deduced that I preferred one movie over another because of the acting ability of Ben Affleck.
The truth really does hurt, doesn’t it?
FURTHER READING: Vanity Fair Pull Article Criticising Jessica Chastain.