Oscar Movies: Political FACT? or FICTION?
Of the two tales of daring CIA operations vying for Oscars next Sunday, Argo is the more conventional. It has a more classical structure—problem/solution/execution/resolution – and there’s a lot of flash and fun in the way it all plays out. The story, if you haven’t heard it, is how one CIA operative extracted six Americans from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis by parading them through the airport as a “film crew” who were “scouting locations” for a movie called Argo, that didn’t actually exist. The story is improbable and crazy and, minus some tweaks, true.
It’s fun to see how this weird plot—which that operative, played by Ben Affleck, who also directed, characterizes as the “best bad idea” they have—plays out. But it’s also enjoyably harrowing.
The first really heart-stopping scene occurs when the Iranians officially storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They’ve been screaming and protesting outside the gates, trying to scramble up the walls, but as soon as a couple of them make it over, they just start flooding in, ready to tear the place apart. All through this, we’re seeing the people in the building—these poor bureaucrats, who really have nothing to do with anything geopolitical, but are Americans and are thus the enemy in this case—watching at the windows and wondering if they’re going to ever see home again. And there’s this secretary, who is on the phone with the police or some other security force. And when the rebels appear at the end of the hallway, she says into the phone, with the most heartbreaking disappointment and resignation, “Never mind, they’re here.” And then one of the rebels grabs the phone out of her hand, pulls her bodily away, and then does the absolute scariest non-violent thing to her—he carefully removes her glasses. My God. It froze my blood. Something about the taboo of taking something off someone else’s body. A sign of him taking complete control of her body.
We don’t see the actual hostages too much after that. There are a couple of scenes which remind us that they are still there, but this movie is not theirs. I would watch an Iranian hostages movie, but this one is about the escapees—a group of six people who found their way out a back door during the siege and just wandered away. They knocked on several ambassadors’ doors and were ultimately brought in by the Canadian ambassador, to be housed there in his private home, in secret, for almost three months.
It’s an interesting kind of captivity. They’re all living in a nice house where they have (it appears) plenty of room. They just know that if they go outside, they will be immediately killed, to be made examples of. There’s a great bit where the escapees are sitting around the dinner table at the ambassador’s house. They have a nice meal in front of them, they’re drinking wine. And they’re discussing the political situation. They’re disagreeing about the rebels’ position. One character—I think it was the one played by Clea Duvall—suggests that they’re not wrong in wanting to bring their former dictator to justice in their own way, that maybe the U.S. shouldn’t be getting in the way of that.
This reminds me that one of the major criticisms of Argo—besides Ben Affleck playing a guy who in real life is Hispanic—is that it makes the Iranians look like bloodthirsty barbarians. I don’t think that argument works. They are the “villains” of this piece, inasmuch as there is one. But the movie goes out of its way to show that it’s not a black-and-white situation. There’s that dinner table conversation I just mentioned. There is the pre-credits narration of the movie, in which the 20th century political history of Iran is detailed—a history of dictators and despots, generally funded and placed atop the political structure by another nation. The U.S. helped to remove from power an elected Iranian official who didn’t want to deal with us over oil. And the guy with the secret police, who were out oppressing and breaking necks, that guy gave us as much oil as we wanted, and for twenty years the U.S. was totally OK with this. So no, the U.S. is not exactly blameless in this story, and the movie lets us know that before it lets us know anything else.
There’s also one other scene that I felt really cut to the heart of the Iranians’ struggle: the scene when Ben and the special six are maneuvering through the airport with their falsified documents. People have been making a big stink that the screenplay added some obstacles to this event, which apparently in real life was as simple as “they showed the fake IDs, they were waved onto the plane, and they flew away,” but in the movie the six are pulled aside for further scrutiny. They repeat their “we’re making a movie” story and it just isn’t playing with the three stone-faced armed guards. Then one of the guys steps forward (I wish I could remember which one he is; I think he’s Rory Cochrane, but behind their 70s facial hair, all the guys kind of looked the same) to show them the storyboards, and he begins telling the story of the movie. And it’s perfectly-pitched to appeal to these guys. He tells them about how there’s this amazing civilization, out in the beautiful desert sands, and they are invaded by a hostile force, and they have to fight for their independence. This guy sells the movie as hard as he can, and it’s poignant. It’s moving, to watch these guards who, being the age they are, have basically spent their entire lives living under a scary and dangerous dictatorial regime, listen to a story that presents their fight for independence as heroic. From their perspective, it absolutely is, isn’t it?
In addition to being harrowing and poignant, Argo also has moments that are funny as hell, the Hollywood bit mostly. Alan Arkin and John Goodman as old school movie producers who use all of their influence and know-how to create a believable something from an actual nothing. I always love Goodman, but Arkin is especially good, a brusque, sharp-tongued curmudgeon (so, like, an Arkin character) who wheels and deals Argo, a sci-fi adventure, into existence. And also finds time to have a heart-to-heart with Affleck’s character about fatherhood, but that plot thread (in which Affleck is struggling to maintain a relationship with his son following separation from the boy’s mother) is the least interesting of any, although worth it, I guess, for the final shot of the movie, which is quite touching.
Expected Awards Attention: Alan Arkin—who, again, is wonderful—has been garnering nominations but not wins so far, so he will probably not win in the Supporting category at the Oscars. (He is a past winner for Little Miss Sunshine.) Affleck was quite notably snubbed in the Directing category so I can say pretty confidently that he won’t be winning there, either. The Adapted Screenplay category is really strong, but I think Argo has about an equal chance of any of the five.
The most likely statuette this movie will take home is actually Best Picture. I wouldn’t have said this two months ago, thinking some of the more prestigious pictures (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty) were going to have better showings than they have had so far. But Argo has won the top prize at the SAGs, the BAFTAs, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Golden Globes so far, and director snub be damned, I think it’s headed all the way. There really is something to be said for the enjoyability of a classical structure.
So this movie, despite also being about CIA operatives and, ultimately, a harrowing operation in the Middle East, is night to Argo’s day.
The structure is—while not looser, necessarily—more expansive. The movie covers ten years, beginning soon after 9/11 and finishing up with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It hits peaks and valleys—discoveries seem to be leading somewhere and then peter out into dead ends. It reminds me enormously of the structure of Zodiac, one of my favorite films of all time. This movie, like that one, is about the nature of investigation as much as it is about one specific investigation. It dramatizes the process of teasing out little bits of information that can be woven together to form something absolute—how meticulous that process is, and how fickle. Setbacks happen everywhere. In Zero Dark Thirty, the setback usually means someone is killed or almost killed. Because, inasmuch as most of the characters here are CIA agents who have desks and pore over paperwork and are thinkers primarily, not action stars, they are still living and working in the Middle East (Pakistan) in basically the most politically strained period ever in modern history. There are two specific unexpected attacks for which Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, finds herself present; at least one where she isn’t, which the internet tells me is the Camp Chapman attack of December 2009.
I don’t know if I was supposed to know to know what was going to happen in that particular scene, or not. Maybe in its discussion, the operation is specified to be taking place at Chapman, and maybe that was supposed to be an “Uh oh” moment for literate audiences. And it would have been for me if I had been an avid follower of “terror in the Middle East” news, but I’m not.
It’s also possible that they never verbalize where those characters are going when they arrange a secret meeting with their Taliban mole, because the major point of effectiveness for this movie is its tension. And not knowing what is going to happen is such an integral part of film tension. Remember that opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, when Christoph Waltz’s character is sitting there talking with the French farmer, while the Jewish family hides under the floorboards? Is he going to find them? Is he going to kill everybody? And it goes on forever and it’s amazing? There are several scenes with tension to match that one in Zero Dark Thirty.
It seems that, that being the case, that the Bin Laden operation—which takes up the last 20-30 minutes of the movie—should be a yawn. We all know how that ends. (And I’ve never been one of these “I don’t need to see Lincoln because I KNOW how it ends!” people; I think they are some of the most annoying people in the universe, actually, because they complete deny the existence of narrative interest, a pleasure in following the progression of the story.) People are certainly saying that about this movie too, but they are made of stronger stuff than me. Because, despite knowing the very general details of that climactic operation, I was riveted. Bolted to my chair, fists clenched.
This scene goes on and on. My initial idea of the Bin Laden raid was that they basically knocked down the door, shot everybody and dragged them all out; like a ten-second mission. This was so different. The house is a fortress, to begin, and every room in every wing is locked. All the doors need to be broken down or exploded open. Plus, the house is full of people—the many wives and children of the Taliban dudes who are laying low there—who are scrambling around all the time, being gathered up by the SEALs and stashed in back rooms and corners. At one point, I asked aloud, to my friend, “How many goddamned rooms are in this house?” But I LOVED that. The drawing out of it made it so intense, and so real. And Bigelow used that drawing-out technique multiple times, another time being a scene where Maya’s car is shot at as it pulls out of the embassy gates. The shots come suddenly, shockingly; any other movie would have cut away just as quickly, leaving us shocked and startled. This movie stays with Maya as she presses her body beneath the dashboard and struggles to shift into reverse. And struggles and struggles. And the shooting continues. And the windows are breaking. And the gear shift is grinding. AND JUST GET THE CAR BACK IN THERE ALREADY, MAYA, YOU IN DANGER, GIRL!
Chastain as Maya is excellent. I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of her, whether we were going to be getting just another Hollywood size zero superspy with amazing hair. Maya is pretty different. She’s super smart, an analyst, a solver of puzzles. And that’s what she does; she never has to fight or kick or shoot a gun through the whole movie. She sits in on the interrogations/torture sessions at the beginning, and she finds them distasteful, but she doesn’t get all feminine bleeding-heart about it, either. They leave her alone with one guy, for a minute, and he begs her for mercy. She tells him, hard but not cold, “You can help yourself by telling the truth.” This is probably what makes people think this movie advocates for torture: that there are no main characters who stand up against it, including our leading lady. If anyone else had done so, it would have been fine with me, but I didn’t want it to be her, and it wasn’t. She’s not a sadist, but she’s a pragmatist, and has an obsessive need for the information above and beyond any ‘feminine’ timidity.
Beyond what they wrote for her, Chastain makes a lot of great unique choices. Instead of responding to a character’s death with histrionics, she sits in a corner, arms hugged to her chest, and breathes, heavy and deep. She is also aggressive and grating in this awesome way; she wants to work more hours, and press harder. There’s a running gag about her wanting the higher-ups to approve the siege of a suspicious house she’s found (spoiler: it’s Osama’s house) and counting the days that she waits for the approval by writing it in magic marker on her boss’s exterior window every day. 71. Wipes it away. 72.
I like any scene where Maya sat in a meeting with other humans and had to work in tandem with them; she always makes her opinion known and makes sure it is the loudest. I loved that in her first meeting with the Jennifer Ehle character (her character’s Jessica, but I want to call her Lizzy), Maya baldly corrects Lizzy’s facts. Ehle makes this face at Maya, this sarcastic, “Oh, thank you” face, and I was like, OK, here’s her antagonist. But no! They become friends. Lizzy gets her, that this aspect of her is nothing personal. So does Kyle Chandler (OK, Coach Taylor) as her superior in Pakistan. She has this great moment of just yelling at him in a hallway where she legitimately seems like a crazy person.
With amazing hair. She must be getting first rate product in Pakistan. Lizzy Bennett, too. They both looked fab from start to finish.
Were there flaws here? Precious few in my opinion, but at least one I can single out. Somebody somewhere obviously thought this flowing delta of a narrative that I loved so much needed more structure, because the movie has chapter titles, a segmentation I don’t think add anything. Also, the movie frequently shows location titles that are almost never necessary. Example: a scene opens, a car drives into a gated lot with the sign “American Embassy, Pakistan.” Title: “American Embassy, Pakistan.” Another: establishing shot of nighttime Islamabad; in the very center of the shot, shining bright with lights: a Marriott. Title: “Pakistan Marriott.” It was baffling. And probably 100% the result of studio notes.
Expected Awards Attention: I walked out of this movie thinking “That is the best movie I have ever seen in MY LIFE, much less this year.” I have come down from that a bit, but I continue to believe it’s easily the greatest filmic achievement of any on (or off) this year’s Best Picture slate. (I have two of them yet to see, but I don’t expect Amour or Django Unchained to knock this one flat.) As a friend of mine pointed out, though, this is a highly controversial movie. There’s the torture thing, plus the idea that the material it covers is too recent and sensitive for mass consumption. I don’t really care about any of that, all I know is that director Kathryn Bigelow (with the assist of screenwriter Mark Boal of course) took a messy, 10-year search full of setbacks and carved a single story out of it, punctuated with teeth-chatteringly tense action sequences. Like Argo and Affleck, Bigelow was overlooked at nomination time, and unfortunately unlike Affleck, she will not reap the rewards of other organizations righting that wrong. (Affleck has won Best Director at the Globes, the BAFTAs, the Critics’ Choices, and the Director’s Guild awards, or basically all the remaining awards for which they were both in the running.) She can’t win director, and Zero Dark Thirty in all likelihood will lose Best Picture to Argo.
Because the movie was so wonderfully suspenseful, I think it deserves the Editing award. That may go to Argo in a sweep, however.
The movie’s most likely win is Jessica Chastain as best actress. The race is tight between her and Jennifer Lawrence (plus Emmanuelle Riva just won the BAFTA and may play the spoiler), but the Oscars tend to skew towards seriousness. I think she has a great shot here, and I would not be at all sorry to see her up there. (And if she shows up wearing exactly what she wore last year, I will not be disappointed. SO PRETTY!)