Another in a series of “let’s go to the movies with my sister and brother-in-law”. It was Robin’s turn to pick, and so, Argo, nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture.
Argo seems to be mentioned a lot in connection with Zero Dark Thirty. Both are based on real events that take place in the Middle East and involve the United States. But there isn’t really much reason to put the two movies together. Zero Dark Thirty is, as the title implies, dark, and works within the genres of the police procedural and the individual hero chafing against bureaucracy. Argo allows room for humor, perhaps inevitably, given the subject matter (CIA invents a crappy sci-fi movie so they can smuggle Americans out of Iran … it doesn’t make sense, yet it makes sense). While Argo is also partly about an individual hero, Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez is always the brains behind a team, not an obsessed loner like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in ZD30.
The most obvious comparison between the two movies lies in the performances of the leads. Affleck suits his part well … he spends a lot of time blending in, which is part of his job. The performance is not a dynamic one, but it would be the wrong choice to play it flamboyantly. Still, Affleck-the-director must work around a central character that doesn’t often grab the screen. Chastain, on the other hand, owns Zero Dark Thirty. Like Affleck, Chastain is playing someone who works internally, but her character is written to allow Chastain to let the audience inside Maya, to give a sense of the price she is paying. Mendez in Argo never seems to have as much at stake.
But Affleck isn’t trying to make a procedural with an obsessed hero, which is why the comparisons don’t matter. Affleck is making a tense thriller with light moments placed in just the right places to give the audience a chance to breathe. The tension comes, not from the overwhelming presence of violence, which is often the case with today’s thrillers, but instead from the potential for violence. Every step of the way, Affleck makes sure we know what might happen just around the corner, which allows for a more tingly edge-of-seat excitement than we’d get from a blunt gore fest.
Affleck has become a solid director: with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, he marked his place as a talent to be watched, and Argo is a step up from those two pictures. He isn’t delivering masterpieces yet, but his movies as director are thus far reliably high-quality. I’m not as big a fan of his acting, partly because he has been in some really crappy movies, partly because the best movie he was ever in, Dazed and Confused, was an ensemble piece where his performance didn’t stand out among the many, many fine ones.
One more comparison to Zero Dark Thirty. That film never let us forget why the U.S. wanted revenge. There was no attempt to understand why someone would attack America in the first place. At least Argo starts off with a brief history lesson that reminds us why the Shah was so hated by his people, and thus why there was such anger against Americans. Argo is about those Americans … I don’t want to overstate this point. But we have a sense of other possibilities besides the ones the U.S. promotes.
I’m not nearly as bothered by fealty (or not) to real events in movies like this, but it should be noted that in the last part of Argo, Affleck and writer Chris Terrio place excitement over that fealty. I think it’s the right decision, but there’s no reason for fans of Argo (or detractors of Zero Dark Thirty) to get overly upset, anyway.