These two nicely pair in a rich compare/contrast approach. Maybe you recall that when I was teaching, I wrote about giving a compare/contrast question on an exam. The course was Introduction to Literature (one of my favorite courses to teach) and I presumed that students would have had a basic composition course and would KNOW how to write a compare/contrast essay. Well, no—I presumed too much. This incident clearly made a mark on me, as in a previous movie review wherein I wrote a comparison/contrast review of another two movies, I referred to that exam experience.
Anyway—this year’s compare/contrast offering herewith. Until we saw the second of these two movies—we went to see Zero Dark Thirty first and then Argo—I was thinking all the movies in the “Best Films” category were unique, stand-alone pieces. Not so.
Comparing the two films is easy. They both deal with terrorism or extremism. Zero Dark Thirty, of course, is about the hunting down and killing of Bin Laden. Argo is about the infamous takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the time the Ayatollah Khomeini first came to power. Both films are set in the Middle East. Both feature themes of the United States against the world. (Thankfully, no one burst into that raucous and mind-numbing chant of USA USA USA during the viewings.) They are both based on an historical event.
A few more expansive comparisons are in order. Both movies feature a single-minded character. In Zero Dark Thirty it is the CIA analyst Maya brilliantly played by Jessica Chastain. In Argo, it is Ben Affleck also as a CIA operative Tony. Both movies have a happy ending in that the goal that is set out—either to find and kill Bin Laden or to rescue some American diplomats who managed to escape the embassy but not Tehran—is achieved. To achieve these ends, both of the main characters have to contend with skeptical authorities. Maya at times seems to be the only one in the CIA who believes she has a connection that will lead to finding Bin Laden. Her belief is so strong that you get the impression that her conviction alone is what made the operation “a go”. Tony’s rescue scheme is so fantastical that he has to use his best persuasiveness to get permission to proceed. And of course, both movies operate on high adrenalin and tense scenes.
One final way in which these two movies align is the reception they have received in the awards giving world. Both of the directors—Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck for Argo were snubbed by the Oscars. True, they have previously been recognized for their work: Bigelow won as Oscar as Best Director for The Hurt Locker, which also won Best Picture; and Ben Affleck won an Oscar, along with Matt Damon, for the screenplay for Dogma. But the great shock when this year’s Oscar nominees were revealed was the absence from the Best Director list of Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck. Since then, Ben Affleck has won several other awards for his directing of Argo, and Argo itself has been selected as best picture. But the Oscars are always “another story.”
There are also differences between the movies (keeping in mind that a valid compare/contrast must have differences). While we generally have known the story on which Zero Dark Thirty is based, the story behind Argo was classified for years and years. There is one fine and wonderfully ironic line in Argo—when the news that the American Embassy workers have been freed, with credit at the time being given to the Canadians, one commentator opines “Why can’t we [Americans] do something like that.”
Another difference is the means whereby the operation at the heart of each movie is carried out. While both stories begin with the CIA as the intelligence hub, the execution of the plans in each of the movies differs. Once Bin Laden’s location is determined, it is the military which executes the final plan. Officially known as The United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the group is referred to colloquially as Seal Team 6. Where previously this group was TOP SECRET, seemingly of late some members can’t shut up.
Such cannot be said about Tony Mendez, the hero behind the Argo story. Of course, the movie itself has the CIA doing the planning, and the CIA executing the plan. It seems at times that Tony is the only one who believes he can succeed. But he is given the go ahead, and carries out a daring rescue—with a little help from him friends. These friends include a make-up artist from Hollywood, played by John Goodman, and a composite Hollywood “producer” played by Alan Arkin. Canadians are also Tony’s friends—several real-life Canadian embassy staff are collapsed into one character played by Victor Garber. This remarkable story only came to light years after the events, when some of the information was declassified. Tony Mendez himself kept the secret for years, finally revealing his role in an autobiographical work published in 1999. Even his receiving of an award was done in secret.
Maybe the difference in who carries out the daring plans explains another contrast between the two movies. Zero Dark Thirty is a tight, fast-paced movie which moves from early scenes of the U.S. CIA personnel torturing presumed Al Qaeda lower functionaries, to the actual military operation that is carried out with clock-work precision. Argo has a much looser feeling. From beginning to end, the rescue scheme is so improbable that the viewer sits gripping the edge of his/her seat, not knowing where the next twist will come from.
Both movies were very engaging, action-filled, heart-pumping entertainment, well worth the price of a movie ticket and the hours to watch them.