Friday, January 24, 2020
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Movie reviews: ‘Argo’ & ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The Oscars are tomorrow, and since Voxitatis hasn’t found a high school student to replace the talented, knowledgeable Luke Yelden as our movie reviewer, I’m going to have to write this story myself.

Two of the 10 movies up for Best Picture are Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both being memorable flicks with great storytelling, directing, and acting. Argo is probably ahead of Zero Dark Thirty in the Oscar handicapping, but I have no idea which movie will win, if either of them.

Both movies are about military operations, supported by the US government, against people or groups, Muslim people and groups, that is, who were hurting Americans. But neither tells the story of Saving Private Ryan, where thousands of soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy. The Oscar contenders this year were about small military operations, executed by a few highly trained soldiers.

With Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow got criticized for taking several liberties with the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Specifically, people in the US said they left out several key debates among our military and political leaders over the use of waterboarding torture when interrogating informants and/or prisoners of war. There can be no doubt, however, that telling a story so soon after it happened is a bold move, and a few errors and omissions are bound to happen.

I too wish the film had focused more on the extended discussions that preceded the final order to take out the Al Qaida leader. The US studied whether the information obtained from waterboarding could be trusted, whether it was morally objectionable to use waterboarding, and whether such treatment complied with our laws and treaties. The story focused more on the soldiers and agents, charged simply with execution of orders given by the people having the discussions and debates. As a result, this protracted movie told half the story, the half that suggests waterboarding is OK as long as it works.

Argo, on the other hand, had most of its detractors in Iran, who said the movie portrayed Iranians as simple-minded, violent people who storm embassy gates. It told the story about a plan to help Americans escape from the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by telling officials in Iran that the soldiers were there to make a movie about their country. It poked a little fun at Hollywood in the process. After director Ben Affleck’s character, John Chambers, revealed the plan to make a fake movie as a front to save the hostages to Hollywood make-up artist Tony Mendez, played by John Goodman, the following comic exchange took place:

Chambers: So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: [smiles] You’ll fit right in!

Mr Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director, which is perhaps a snub, but this might actually help Argo win Best Picture. (Best Picture winners have usually received a parallel nomination in the Best Director category, but Argo received acting, writing, and editing nominations, three other categories that usually accompany a rise to Best Picture.)

It’s hard to find fault with the film, though, especially given that the people who vote for the Oscars are from Hollywood. They like to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously, and in the end, Chambers’s plan of using a Hollywood movie to rescue real-life hostages is about as feel-good a story as Hollywood has ever told.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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