Zero Dark Thirty and Argo

There are several reasons I link these two films together. Both are acclaimed productions which have already garnered awards. While both films have been nominated for Best Picture in the 2013 Academy Awards, both directors, Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck have been snubbed in the Best Director category. The reason I do not want to speculate. But for one of them, I have a hunch.

These are very American films, depicting Americans in crisis and its aftermath. Argo is about getting Americans out of Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis in Tehran, Zero Dark Thirty (ZD30) about hunting and getting into Pakistan to take down Osama bin Laden. Both involve the intricate work of the CIA.

And, both have driven me to the edge of my seat, despite the fact that I know the ending of the event they portray. This is the power of visual storytelling. But for me, the similarities may well end here.

Ben Affleck

Argo rests on one man, Tony Mendez, a CIA officer who masterminded the rescue mission, information declassified only in recent years. Played by director Ben Affleck, Mendez is decorated with CIA’s Intelligence Star and received other accolades after that.

ZD30 rests on one woman, known only as Maya in the film. A young CIA officer who for ten years, dedicated her life to the searching for Osama bin Laden. She is relentless in her pursuit, fighting not only outward threats of physical dangers but bureaucracy within an alpha male work environment. Her identity remains hidden.

Jessica Chastain has once again shown how versatile an actor she is. I have seen her in some very different roles: The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help. Here in ZD30, she has convincingly portrayed a strong leading female character with finesse. Her performance not only carries the film but our emotion as well.

Jessica Chastain

And not only Maya, ZD30 has shown us there are other female CIA officers performing perilous duties. Her friend and colleague Jessica is one of them. Now, as I watched this Jessica on screen, I kept thinking she looked so familiar. Only when I watched the credits roll at the end did I find out, lo, that’s Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, 1995) or a bit closer, Myrtle Logue in The King’s Speech (2010).

Director Kathryn Bigelow has done an exceptional job in turning Mark Boal’s original screenplay into a tight and engrossing film. Both won Oscars for The Hurt Locker (2008), Bigelow being the first woman to win the Best Director award. At the beginning of the film, we are told it is based on firsthand accounts of actual events. Despite knowing the ending, I was still captivated every step of the way, following the intelligence gathering process, the narrowing down of leads and locations, the red tape. The film is an alchemy of facts and fiction, a creative fusion. But for the audience, there is no way to distinguish which is which.

That leads to the controversial issue, one that some in Washington and now the Academy have condemned, the issue of torture. And here’s my take. Isn’t it a bit simplistic to argue that since the film depicts scenes of torture of detainees to get leads and information, it means that the filmmakers condone or even promote torture?

While the U.S. Administration had denied using any torture tactics in the final capture of bin Laden does not mean the total absence of them over the ten year post 9/11 period, both known or later discovered. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison are still vivid in my mind. None of the scenes in the film can compare to those real life photos. Or, come to think of it, could Abu Ghraib have informed the screenwriting? This being not a documentary, but a dramatized fusion, can one separate facts and fiction so clearly?

Or take Argo, how much is true about the rescue mission? How much is dramatized? What proportion should we give credits to the mastermind Mendez and the CIA, and how much should we credit the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) for hiding the six American embassy staff in his home at his own risk? The same kind of simplistic accusation ZD30 is getting could also apply here: Does the fact that they all escaped Iran using false identity mean the filmmakers, or the Canadian government for that matter, promote deception and the forging of Canadian passports?

Unlike Argo, the ending is not celebratory in ZD30. Things are not as clean cut as planned. The final mission of assassination is messy, a helicopter is down and has to be destroyed on site. There are collateral damages. But the target is hit, mission accomplished. Nevertheless, there is no applause or celebration. The tone is sombre, which I think is most apt. The final scene with Maya alone on the large transport plane leaving Pakistan is the epitome of ambivalence. Jessica Chastain leaves us with a poignant expression. Is it justice, national security, or rather, personal vendetta that has been accomplished? The last line delivered by the pilot echoed in my mind after I’d left the theatre, dazed… Where do we want to go from here?

Zero Dark Thirty ~~~~ Ripples

Argo ~~~1/2 Ripples

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CLICK HERE to read Kathryn Bigelow’s article on L.A.Times addressing the controversy of torture in the film Zero Dark Thirty. 

Golden Globes, Jan. 13, 2013: Argo won Best Picture, Drama, and Ben Affleck Best Director. Jessica Chastain won Best Actress, Drama, for Zero Dark Thirty.

Related posts on Ripple Effects:

History Made At The Oscars

The Hurt Locker 

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

23 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty and Argo”

  1. As always, the depth and shrewd observation of your reviews is clear in this one. Both of these are on my “to see” list before the awards. While I’m a little Bin Ladined out, I’m especially interested in Argo and that mission, which I recall so clearly and knew little about details. Are they the real details? I hope so. Nonetheless, I’m ready for a good suspense film — and the mark of a real one is that when you know the ending and are still engaged, you have a winner. Very nice analysis and blending of the thematic elements.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Thanks for your comment. Hope you’ll enjoy these films. As Vagabonde comments below, you may want to read Mendez’s memoir to find out the facts. But even then, who can say our memories and perspective are 100% clear and accurate. Anyway, hope you would stop by after you’ve watched them and share your thoughts.

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  2. Despite your engaging and informative reviews, I’ll not be seeing either of these, From what I can tell, neither will most of my friends. My view of the actual events, particularly regarding Bin Laden, are so colored by my distaste for certain of our actions and my disgust for many of the people involved that I simply won’t subject myself to sitting through the films. I’ve had enough of the events in real life – no need to see them again.

    On the other hand, I was most taken by this statement: ” The film is an alchemy of facts and fiction, a creative fusion. But for the audience, there is no way to distinguish which is which.”

    In Washington, that’s called business as usual – making it impossible for US citizens to know what is fact, and what’s fiction.

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    1. Linda,

      LOL! That’s a good one about Washington.

      No, these films are not for everyone. But as a film buff, from the POV of appreciating the productions, I find they are very well done. As for the acting, I think Jessica Chastain should be honored at the Oscars for her sensitive performance in ZD30.

      And no, I won’t be disappointed if my readers don’t swarm out and line up for the films I favor. I don’t get any commissions or rewards for number of views on my posts, or number of tickets sold when they mention my blog. I want to keep Ripple Effects ‘non-profit’. 😉

      Thanks for throwing in a few pebbles every time you visit. I love to see ripples here at the pond.

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  3. I enjoyed reading your film reviews, as usual. I really liked Argo – as a movie. Afterwards I did read an article saying that many points of the film were not accurate, and that is why they went back and wrote “based on true events” rather than saying “a true story.” The Canadians had a lot more to do with it and in the film Mendez is acting alone, but in real fact, there was another CIA agent with him. Also the scene at the airport at the end never happened – they were left to take the plane with no problem. I did buy Mendez’s book for my husband for Christmas, so we’ll see what his recollections say. As for the movie Zero Dark Thirty – first of all I detest this title – it sounds too macho for me, a super Marine type of movie and so I don’t think I want to go and see it. I also don’t like to see movies showing Muslims as they are usually so stereotyped – almost like propaganda style (against them) if you understand what I mean.
    By the way I went back to Downton Abbey and listened to Robert in French and wrote about it in your last post. Thinking about it more, I do believe that they did not use this idiomatic sentence in the right tense – it is hard sometimes for foreigners to use the French phrases in the right way.

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    1. Vagabonde,

      Thanks for your prompt reply of my query about the French phrase. I’d alerted the commenter. Hopefully he would come back and read it.

      As for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, they are both movies, ie, fictional despite ‘based on true events’. But my main objection is, both films are definitely not being treated on equal terms. Argo has been hailed while ZD30 condemned. And now, even protests are gathering steam at the voting stage of The Academy Awards and other Awards coming up. Really makes me think of the ultra-motive behind these smears and protests.

      For ZD30, true it’s a military term for 30 mins. after midnight, a dark hour. But you know, Kathryn Bigelow the director as well as Jessica Chastain have turned the role of Maya into an iconoclast. Both females have nailed the character and her portrayal. In the film, I don’t sense any improper or stereotypical portrayals of Muslims, and we know that terrorism is done by terrorists. Actually, if there is any tainting, it’s the Americans that are shown in a less than perfect light. (Hence the protests and condemnations at present, by… Americans themselves.) Everything is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, procedural. My last paragraph in this post has hinted how the filmmakers have portrayed the whole mission, filled with complexity and ambivalence.

      The main purpose of my reviews is to suggest interpretations to hopefully increase viewers’ enjoyment of good films. Like literature, what we see and hear on screen often need to be unpacked and deciphered; just like the literary, we have to read between the lines to capture the subtext before we can grasp the meaning and implications so to appreciate the work at a deeper level.

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    2. Hi Vagabonde,

      I am not trying to persuade you to see Zero Dark 30, but your statement that you won’t see it because it’s a macho movie because of the title could not be more incorrect. ZD30 features and highlights the strongest and toughest female character I’ve seen in movies since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens.

      Maya, the central character in ZD30 who is responsible for finding Osama Bin Laden, is brilliantly portrayed by Jessica Chastain. Maya is an embodiment of someone smart, tough mentally and physically and has the determination to stick to what she believes is right and won’t let anything or anyone stand in her way. Her flaming red hair, pale white skin and slim built belies Maya’s steely intestinal fortitude.
      Maya witnessed ruthless tortures, stared terrorists right in the eyes to pry information, survived assassinations and most of all, refused to yield to her bosses’ pressure to abandon her belief that Bin Laden was hiding in an urban area instead of in a cave.

      In one of the film’s critical (and funny to me) moments, Maya and other intelligent officers briefed CIA chief Leon Panetta on the possibility that they have located the house where Bin Laden is hiding. Maya, the only female present, was told to stand in the back of the room, but got the attention of Penatta, who asked her, who is this? Maya’s response was: “I am the mother-____er who found him.” That’s a classic moment.

      I love ZD30, but I am only writing this to make sure people who think this is a macho, military film that they cannot be more wrong. This film is a celebration of females.

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  4. What thoughtful reviews of these two films! I’ve heard so many mixed things about them, but now I feel like I have a handle on what they are about and why the chatter. I don’t think I will see them, but I am glad someone is thinking intelligently about them!

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    1. Stefanie,

      Thanks for your kinds words. Comments like yours are what sustain me to continue writing reviews. As for the films, you’ll never know. With Argo winning the Golden Globes last night for Best Picture and Ben Affleck Best Director, there just may be enough push for some to change their minds to go out and watch it on the big screen. 😉

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  5. I’m interested in both films and would like to both, which doesn’t always translate into actual seeing. My default on all films based on true events is to assume that any particular “fact” is quite possibly made up and that real life rarely makes an exciting, well crafted, and well paced story. Liked your reviews.

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  6. As usual I hadn’t heard of either of these films! But I very much appreciate your sensitive and detailed analysis. I fear that when films enter a politicized arena (and the awards ceremonies are nothing if not that), then very bald and un-nuanced readings of the films take place. Box ticking becomes far more important than artistic ambiguity (which is always closer to life – very little in life is black or white). I probably sound hopelessly cynical, and I don’t mean to be. I’m never cynical about art, only about awards! 🙂

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    1. litlove,

      In her acceptance speech for her Best Actress (musical/comedy) Golden Globe last Sunday, Jennifer Lawrence said something like this “Thank you Harvey Weinstein (producer) for killing whoever that you needed to to get me up here.” Movie Awards and the political arena… cannot find a more apt pair of metaphors.

      BTW, I just got this book from the library, its beautiful cover is the main appeal, which usually is the case for me, it is The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. Maybe we should be cynical… 😉

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  7. Because I no longer enjoy going to the theater I always miss out on all of the Oscar picks. Your reviews make me want to break down and see them though.

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    1. Thanks Ti. This year we have some very good movies for the Oscar race. Hope you’ll go out and watch a couple of them on the big screen. I know you like musicals, Les Mis is a good choice. I’m sure your whole family would enjoy that one. 😉

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    1. John,

      I don’t know about you. But for me, I watched them on the big screen on different days, but not too far apart. I do feel one needs to absorb it all and digest it a bit before moving to the next, especially for ZD30. So I’d suggest watching Argo first.

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  8. I would like to have seen a little more uncertainty about the ethics of the whole thing – the revenge aspect of aiming to go in to kill rather than capture – but that said, it was handled with minimal rah-rah and the ending, as you say, was excellent with great music to underscore that. I loved that the music was subdued and solemn rather than triumphal.

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    1. WG,

      When I read your comment on my iPhone I was just stepping out of the theatre after watching Zero Dark Thirty a second time. This time, I’m even more appreciative of it as a production: the massive and in-depth research, the difficulties of the production, the stamina and energy of cast and crew, needless to say the tenacity of the director Kathryn Bigelow. About your mentioning that the ethics should be depicted with more uncertainty… I watched Kathryn Bigelow on Jay Leno last night, she mentioned this point: none of the tortures lead to direct information they needed to capture bin Laden. I think by this already is a lesson learned.

      As for the music, again, it’s Alexandre Desplat’s score. He’s in almost every good movie. ZDT, Argo (Oscar nom), Moonrise Kingdom, last year’s The Tree of Life, and another Oscar nom for The King’s Speech, The Queen… I really like his compositions. And you’re right, the heavy, sombre tone at the closing of ZDT is most effective. Again, that’s another way to depict the ambivalence of the seemingly successful raid.

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      1. Oh, thanks for this Arti. Yes, I agree that the ending was well done and enabled us to sense some ambivalence. My issue about the ethics is less to do with the torture … I think it’s great they did that and didn’t hide it under the carpet, and they showed the disconnect between what the CIA was doing and what the government wanted. … Or wanted to pretend it wanted. Who knows. No, my issue was with the stated aim of going in to kill him … Not capture him, but kill him. What she said as I recollect was ‘kill him for me’. That was the AIM. And no one thought anything of it. I know about 9/11 but revenge is never a good thing in my mind … I’d like to have seen that considered.

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