How to Do the Right Thing

Film reviews: Argo (Director: Ben Affleck) and Zero Dark Thirty (Director: Kathryn Bigelow)

By Sascha Krieger

When the 85th annual Academy Awards were handed out on February 24 in Los Angeles, their biggest star was not even present – at least not officially: the United States‘ Central Intelligence Agency, better known as the CIA. Two of the year’s most remarkable and widely discussed films told the stories of risky, difficult and ultimately successful CIA operations. Argo  takes us back to the dark days of the Iranian hostage crisis. Six US diplomats could escape to the residence of the Canadian ambassador. CIA agent Tony Mendez comes up with the crazy idea of getting them out under the cover of a fake science-fiction film project called Argo. In Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow tells the story of the search for and killing of Osama Bin Laden, told from the perspective of a young but relentless CIA agent instrumental in finding the Al-Qaeda leader in Pakistan. While Argo ended up as „Best Picture“, Zero Dark Thirty was snubbed by the Academy which may be to do with the fact that the film is considerably more unsettling, morally open and ultimately more radically eliminating Hollywood’s beloved black or white view of the world.

Argo

The plot of Argo is so crazy and unbelievable that it must be true. In order to get six US diplomats hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence out of Teheran, the CIA set up a fake film company, publicize the production of a fake film and send an agent into Iran who tries to smuggle the six out under the pretense of being a location scout team. Ben Affleck directed the film and he plays Tony Mendez, the real CIA man behind this ultimately successful operation. Argo is not a tale of heroism, it is a tale of professionals doing their job. His Tony is a serious, realistic man who knows the risks but is also aware that this is their best chance, as crazy as the idea sounds. Argo allows the viewer deep insights into the bureaucracy, the envy and power games, the lack of reality, a power apparatus like the CIA brings with it. Yet, it never condemns or exaggerates. This is, after all, a bureaucratic organization and within that framework, these people are trying to do what is best. The scenes within the CIA are one highlight of the film, those inside the ambassador’s residence in which Mendez and the six refugees struggle with themselves and each other about whether they can and should take the risk, are the other.

Argo is a film about people under pressure, humans in a state of emergency trying to figure out and do what is right. These scenes as well as the one in which the fake location scouts visit a Teheran bazar are of an almost unbearable intensity, driven by a painfully close, increasingly unsettling camera which captures and mirrors the threat of people unravelling, fearing for their lives. In these moments, Affleck gives the film an almost documentary feel, plunging the viewer right into the scene as it happens. But Argo is also a very cleverly constructed thriller in which the suspense rises almost imperceptibly until the audience are suddenly right on the edges of their seats, hardly knowing how they got there. Affleck does a great job letting the story breathe, never artificially heightening the tension, allowing it to organically grow from the existential threat under which these people live. Adding a wonderful subtle little Hollywood satire, perfectly enacted by the fake filmmakers Alan Arkin and John Goodman, Argo is a memorably film about normal people surviving under pressure, in which good and bad are still a little too easy to differentiate.

Zero Dark Thirty

This distinction is much more blurred from the outset of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya, a young CIA operative, fresh from headquarters, arrives in Iraq and the first thing she sees is the interrogation of a suspected terrorist against whom waterboarding and other torture techniques are used.Initially clearly uncomfortable with the situation, Maya will soon adapt to the methods and culture employed here to deal with suspects. This, she concludes, is no place and time for scruples. Like her, the film does not condemn any of the tactics and methods used in George W. Bush’s so-called War on Terror, it simply shows them and their consequences. For it must be part of an honest debate to also acknowledge that, at least when it comes to the search for Bin Laden, these highly problematic activities did yield some results. In this world, in this permanent state of emergency, the viewer learns, good and bad are really hard to keep apart, there is no black or white and sometimes, the grey turns awfully dark. Zero Dark Thirty leads to many questions as to how far a free and democratic society is allowed to go for the greater good as they say but it provides no easy answers. These are questions we all must answer for ourselves. Too unsettling a thought for the Academy?

First and foremost, however, Zero Dark Thirty is the story of one woman’s mission, of her crusade to show the world and everybody else that she is right. And this Maya, no less than those she hunts, is a fanatic, an extremist, uncompromising, relentless, deaf to all reasoning. A woman who writes the number of days wasted every morning on her boss‘ glass door, who gives herself up to her task, who signs a pact with her very personal devil to complete a mission whose sole meaning seems to lie in its fulfilment. Bigelow does well to refrain from building artificial tension, from working the register of suspense. Watching Jessica Chastain freeze, tighten, unravel, observing her body getting ever more tense when all of her nears the breaking point, is quite enough. There is a documentary feel to how the camera follows Chastain’s Maya and it completely takes over when we leave her at last and join the team that invades Bin Laden’s final hiding place and ends up killing him. There is nothing heroic about this, just people doing their jobs, not asking whether what they’re doing is right, in the conventional sense.

There is no triumph, relief yes, but also a sense of loss when Maya, having completed her mission, finally breaks down. Her mission is over but what has been gained? For her? For us? Zero Dark Thirty is a film that asks questions but provides no answers, questions which we might not want to answer because we might not like what we could find. There are no easy exists here, no comfortable paths, just a look into the heart of darkness – ours, society’s, the human soul’s. At times we might be tempted to avert our eyes, but maybe it is a good thing that we don’t. No, not maybe, it most certainly is.

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