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CIA cinema: Classifying ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck share a moment during the 13th Annual AFI Awards at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills hotel on Jan. 11.
Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck share a moment during the 13th Annual AFI Awards at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills hotel on Jan. 11.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America

No one seemed more surprised when Ben Affleck won the Golden Globe for Best Director than Affleck himself.

Dressed in a tuxedo but still sporting a full “Argo” beard, a dazed Affleck sprang onstage and did his best impersonation of the Micro Machines Man during a rapid-fire, rambling speech in which he gave a shout-out to American troops serving overseas, spoke with hallowed reverence of his fellow nominees and likened non-nominee Paul Thomas Anderson to Orson Welles.

That Affleck would even get the chance to direct, let alone outduel perennial Best Director favorites Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, when the ostensible matinee idol took home the Razzie Award for Worst Actor for the trashy trifecta of “Daredevil,” “Paycheck” and “Gigli”—the latter of which is routinely cited on lists of the worst movies ever made.

Yet Affleck’s rise to A-list director status is no less improbable than that of Kathryn Bigelow, whose résumé prior to her 2009 Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” included such pulp cinema as the Jamie Lee Curtis cop flick “Blue Steel” and the surfer-cum-bank robber adrenaline-fest “Point Break.”

Through the whims of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 40-year-old Affleck and 61-year-old Bigelow are now linked in the annals of awards season history. Not only did Affleck beat Bigelow for the Golden Globes directing award, but both the Affleck-directed “Argo” and the Bigelow-helmed “Zero Dark Thirty” are based on the real life exploits of CIA operatives and both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture—despite the fact that neither Affleck nor Bigelow received Oscar nods for Best Director.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” billed as “the greatest manhunt in history,” is the story of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden that culminated with the al-Qaida leader’s execution by a team of Navy SEALs at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Structurally, the film is a descendent of the police procedural genre, with Bigelow and “Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal positioning the hunt for bin Laden as the single-minded obsession of a CIA operative called Maya.

As portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Maya is an enigma. All work and no play, she apparently has no interest in such typical human pursuits as food, drink, sex or romantic love. In one telling scene with James Gandolfini’s CIA director, she admits that she has done literally nothing but work on the bin Laden case since being recruited by the agency out of high school.

There are several superbly crafted sequences in “Zero Dark Thirty,” particularly the raid on the Abbottabad compound—a marvel of verisimilitude with cinematography by Greig Fraser that mimics the point of view of night vision goggles. But by film’s end, when Maya sobs following the successful completion of the raid, the emptiness she feels is an emotion shared by departing moviegoers, whose induced sense of vindication from the revenge killing of bin Laden is clouded by the filmmakers’ ambivalent presentation of torture.

Bigelow and Boal have earned rebukes from both acting CIA Director Michael Morell—who reminded CIA employees in a letter that the success of the bin Laden mission was not a one-woman show but rather the culmination of “the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers”—and a trio of senators led by Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote in a letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton that “Zero Dark Thirty” is “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden.”

Bigelow, in a subsequent interview with Stephen Colbert, pointed out that the film does show that the key piece of information that led to the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout had been buried in CIA files since 2001, but that torture “was also part of the history and we wanted to tell the story respectfully and honestly, and so since it’s part of the history we had to show a few sequences of enhanced interrogation.”

That waterboarding and other forms of prisoner torture were commonplace in the post-9/11 intelligence community is well-documented and undeniable, but the amount of screen time devoted to torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” is disproportionate to its ultimate role in the success of the bin Laden manhunt. The “few sequences” referenced by Bigelow are in fact the film’s entire first act.

The historicity of narrative film will always fold under enhanced interrogation, but the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” don’t have the luxury of falling back on the usual “it’s just a movie” defense, due to the fact that an opening title card purports that it is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”—a much stronger claim to reality than the standard issue “based on a true story” disclaimer.

In essence, Bigelow and Boal tried and failed to both have their cake and eat it by claiming journalistic authenticity in the context of a Hollywood production that, unlike nonfiction reportage, is subject to the constraints and formulas of narrative storytelling.

“Argo,” by contrast, has no qualms about turning history into escapist entertainment.

Set during the Iran hostage crisis, it is a dramatization of what became known as the “Canadian Caper,” in which six U.S. diplomats escaped during the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran by student radicals and took refuge in the homes of Canadian diplomats. Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who got the six Americans out of Iran under the cover story that they were a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie.

Historians can find much to squawk at in the dramatic liberties the Chris Terrio-scripted film takes, most notably its downplaying of the role the Canadian government played in the rescue operation and the suspenseful—yet fictional—near cancellation of the mission at the eleventh hour by the Carter administration.

But the mere fact that Affleck cast himself in the role of Mendez, a Latino, and turned the former CIA chief of disguise into the dashing hero of a star vehicle can be taken as a cue that “Argo” is entertainment first, history second.

Affleck the actor will never be mistaken for Daniel Day-Lewis, but he lends just the right amount of stoic understatement to the knight in shining armor figure who engineers the dramatic rescue.

Affleck the director, whose auspicious debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” was negated by the muddled mess of “The Town,” appears to have regained his confidence behind the lens. While several of the Tehran sequences are stereotypically reductive, portraying Iranians as the barbaric other for the sake of manufactured suspense, the scenes set in Hollywood—with John Goodman as a sarcastic makeup artist and Alan Arkin as a world-weary producer who help Mendez establish a front for the fake sci-fi movie—are tremendously entertaining.

“Argo” stumbles briefly with several overly melodramatic attempts to humanize the six stranded diplomats and tacks on an unnecessary coda in which Mendez is reunited with his estranged wife, but the overall impact of Affleck’s direction suggests a film that could have been made, not just set, during the Hollywood renaissance of the late ’70s.

Affleck was astute to single out Paul Thomas Anderson in his Golden Globes acceptance speech. The omission of the masterly director of “The Master” from the list of Best Director nominees was an astonishing travesty.

But given the choice between Affleck and the other four Globe nominees—Bigelow, Lee, Spielberg and Tarantino—it’s clear that the best director won.

"Argo" is currently playing at Essex Cinemas in Essex Junction and the Palace 9 in South Burlington. "Zero Dark Thirty" is currently playing at the Majestic 10 in Williston, the Roxy in Burlington and the Palace 9 in South Burlington.

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