By Omid Arabian
Awards season is upon us again, and two of the most lauded films of the year deal with American involvement in the Middle East. At the top of seemingly everyone's list is Zero Dark Thirty—an account of the CIA's hunt for Osama Bin Laden, as told by director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (Oscar winners for 2009's The Hurt Locker). The film has dusted up a sandstorm of controversy, with various politicians outraged by its suggestion that torturing prisoners was instrumental in the eventual discovery and capture of Bin Laden. On the critical front, however, the film is being almost unanimously praised for (among other things) its unflinching, objective, bias-free approach to historical events. As if such a thing were possible.
Like Hurt Locker, ZDT purports to present just the facts. With its ice-cold, impassive style, steady stream of tagged locations and dates, and constant references to iconic events through actual news footage, the film is designed to create the sense of watching a quasi-documentary. Even more than their earlier film, Bigelow and Boal eschew subplots and minimize character development in favor of torrents of information about the progress of the hunt. But, again as with Hurt Locker, this approach is in fact far from neutral. The utter absence of context, the unspoken assumptions (9/11 was masterminded by Bin Laden and justified our subsequent response) and the unraised ethical questions (about torture, murder and revenge) constitute a major ideological slant, and belie Bigelow's statement that "The film doesn't have an agenda." She is, as usual, playing coy, pretending not to be aware that every frame of a film is rooted in an agenda by virtue of what it excludes as much as what it chooses to include (Bigelow could take an honesty lesson from Quentin Tarantino, whose current Django Unchained and previous Inglourious Basterds — both excellent films — wear their ideological bias and skewering of history as badges of honor).
All of that aside, ZDT's greatest crime is that it is hellishly boring. The cinematic equivalent of a 1,200 page congressional report, the film plods along connecting all the tiny dots, repeating the same story beats and patterns, on the way to its fait-accompli ending — all the while presuming that CIA procedure is innately thrilling and captivating (it's not). It is further addled by dialogue that vacillates between incomprehensible spook-speak and pedantic exposition, and characters so thin they are transparent. The climactic video-game-inspired home-invasion sequence works hard to create tension, but could not manage to rouse me out of the stupor brought on by the first two hours. Even Jessica Chastain, normally a stalwart performer, cannot save the film. As Maya, the Osama-obsessed backbone of the manhunt operation, Chastain tries desperately to project gravitas, but only comes across as contrived and even cartoonish. It is beyond me how she is considered the frontrunner in every Best Actress race — never mind how ZDT is such a darling of the critics.
ZDT's closest competitor, critically, is Argo, which revisits the 1979 U.S.-Iran hostage crisis and a CIA team's attempt to smuggle several hostages out of Iran while posing as the location crew of a film that does not exist. Compared to ZDT, Ben Affleck's film is an amusement park: it has car chases, political intrigue, some zingy dialogue, and actual honest-to-goodness suspense. It is also the second-most overrated film of 2012.*
Patterned after the great political thrillers of the 1970s, Argo bears all the sheen and gloss of those films, but with far less substance to support its self-important attitude. Yes, it is very well-researched, and some of the details even verge on spectacular (though that makes the rare errors even more glaring, as when one characters inexplicably says "Salaam" [hello in Persian] when it's time to say goodbye). Yes, it does a decent job of contextualizing itself (even going so far as to cop to the CIA's role in the '50's coup that reinstituted the Shah). But the story is quite slight, and there's a lot that screams padding. Somebody ought to have told Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio that you can't really add depth by shoe-horning your two stars into completely irrelevant conversations about their respective familial relationships.
In fact, much of Argo feels underdeveloped and/or overdetermined: plot turns are telegraphed from miles away; the best elements (e.g., the Hollywood satire) are undercooked; and most of the characters (especially the hostages) are as flimsy and mechanical as paper robots. It's akin to a gussied-up Jason Statham vehicle, minus the gunplay — which is to say reasonably entertaining but far from a masterpiece.
Still, I must admit that Argo also contained what remains for me one of the most memorable film moments of the year: a full-costume table-read of the fake film, carefully planned to give credibility to the CIA's cover, is intercut with a press conference by the then-newly-instituted Islamic Republic government. Intentionally or not, the sequence speaks brilliantly about the utter artifice that is present at the core of both enterprises. Essentially, it says, Hollywood and Politics are twin siblings born of deceit—one is just slightly more overt about its heritage.
Unlike Argo and ZDT, there were two films released in 2012 that truly merit attention at awards time, but are not getting it. The first is the woefully underrated Cloud Atlas, written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (of Matrix pedigree) along with Ton Tykwer (Perfume; Run, Lola, Run). Integrating six stories that unfold across several centuries, the film deserves great praise simply for its audacity of scale and vastness of ambition. That it also carries out its complex task so beautifully, with astonishing attention to both visual and story elements at every turn, should have easily landed it near the top of most year-end lists. Yet it received tepid-to-horrible reviews, and has all but disappeared from awards chatter even in the technical categories. Perhaps we are not yet ready for films that truly challenge our powers of perception, and speak passionately of the ultimate triumph of humanism and universal love (not the rom-com kind of love) over greed, oppression, and political ambition.
The year's other great film is Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, which is in terms of scale the polar opposite of Cloud Atlas, but thematically not dissimilar. Under house arrest in Iran for "anti-government propaganda," and banned from directing, Panahi decided to buck the system and construct what amounts to a filmed attempt at not making a film. Using primarily an iPhone, Panahi directs mostly himself — reading from his scripts, blocking action on an imaginary set, intermittently tending by phone to his appeal in court, and veering between hope and despair. The result is a film that is as deeply touching and artful as it is minimal; Panahi wrenches oceans of meaning and emotion from the simplest of images—an iguana climbing slowly up a crowded bookshelf; a bonfire glimpsed through an iron gate — and speaks truth to power in a simple yet brutally honest way. This Is Not a Film stands with the best of Godard (not to mention Panahi's countrymen Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf) as a masterful inquiry into the enterprise of cinema and its relationship to the sociopolitical structure. Sadly, while it did receive some great notices when released here in February, This Is Not a Film does not qualify for major U.S. awards as it does not officially belong to any country (it was reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake).
[*Editor's note: At the Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 13, 2013, Argo won both the Best Picture of the year in the drama category and a Best Director Award for Affleck. Jessics Chastain won Best Actress, Drama]
Omid Arabian, a writer in Los Angeles, is film editor at the Levantine Review.