The Problem with Argo (Is Not the Problem with Zero Dark Thirty)

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I’m the only person I know that didn’t love Argo. It’s an enjoyable film, but aside from one or two scenes, entirely forgettable. The swiftness of Argo‘s storytelling comes at the loss of any meaningful development in plot or character. Really, it’s less of a story and more a series of things that happen to people. The film does a terrific job setting the stage — six U.S. diplomats trapped in the Canadian Embassy in Iran during the Tehran hostage crisis — only to populate that stage with a cast of non-characters, who mostly say expository things and interact in shallow ways.

It’s even more unfortunate that this carries over into the film’s action scenes, where any sense of suspense is spoiled by the fact that things happen without the characters having any influence on the outcome. We’re supposed to believe that CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is the best at what he does, but aside from coming up with the plan to fake a movie shoot in Iran, no action he takes once he touches down in Tehran seems to have any effect on whether they succeed or not.

The one scene that bucks this trend — and universally revered as Argo‘s best non-Alan-Arkin-and-John-Goodman moment — is when Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), who has been skeptical about the rescue mission throughout, steps up and explains the storyboards of the film to an airport security guard, allowing the group to board the plane. Only moments later Argo‘s worst moment arrives: the flight, mid-take off, is chased by several jeeps. Aside from the ridiculousness of this scene, the escapees have no idea that they are even being chased. There’s no tension, no suspense, just several poorly CGI’d pursuit jeeps.

Surprisingly, all the same arguments I’ve just made about the lack of character development and passivity of suspense scenes in Argo could be made about Zero Dark Thirty. The difference is that it worked in Zero Dark Thirty.

Granted, each film has a different goal. Argo attempts to be an action film inspired by true events, which is why very little in Argo is historically accurate. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty is a hyper-procedural concerned with factuality. It unromantically lays out every relevant detail that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. There is a narrative thread throughout Zero Dark Thirty about the cost of revenge, its toll embodied in the brutal dedication of CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain). But from Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulous filmmaking, you get the sense that she wanted the film to be as accurate as possible, a reenactment of the truth . (It’s why the controversy over whether the film justifies torture was an important discussion, even when I believe the film does not.)

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The main complaint I heard about Zero Dark Thirty before it came out was that it was “too soon” to make a film about bin Laden. I argued this too. But after having seen it, I would say that this is exactly the right time. Our fascination with the film is how it so clearly encapsulates the ambiguity of the moment; the experience is not unlike reading The 9/11 Commission Report, released only 442 days after the attack. Zero Dark Thirty works because we are still so close to it; if it were made five or ten years from now, the film would require dramatization to give the audience emotional context. Since Argo is so far away from its source, we expect — and need — a certain level of moralizing and judgment. We need a story, we need characters. These elements are absent or poorly drawn in Argo, which instead presents itself as a thing that happened but never asks itself why we should care.

Argo fails as both entertainment and history. Zero Dark Thirty is all about history and, intentionally or not, makes for far better entertainment.


Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.