'Argo' vs. 'Zero Dark Thirty': Oscar Night incoming

'Argo' seems to have a lock. 'Zero Dark Thirty,' not so much. Photo: Zero Dark Thirty

LOS ANGELES, February 22, 2013 – Actor Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, an Associate Producer of a science fiction fantasy film entitled Argo, a Hostile Conflagration. The fantastic premise: Argo, a Canadian film, will be shot in Tehran in 1980 at the height the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The only problem is the film is fake and six U.S. employees remain trapped inside the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. 

Based on a true story, Argo was the early favorite to receive the Oscar for Best Picture. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the winner on Sunday, February 24th, 2013 at Dolby Theater. Formerly known as Kodak Theater, the venue was recently upgraded with a brand new sound system, Dolby Atmos

The gripping story behind Argo, both then and now, is one of sheer audacity. While Iranian carpet weavers reassembled shredded documents at the occupied American embassy after illegally incarcerating its employees as hostages to the regime, Tony Mendez confronted the “Mission Impossible” style task of extricating the six Americans. He travelled to Hollywood and pitched his idea to John Chambers, a make-up artist who had previously helped him with disguises. Having previously won an award for his work in Planet of the Apes, Chambers is the real McCoy. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot? Without doing anything?” 

CIA agent Mendez nodded. “Yeah.” 

“You’ll fit right in.” 

According to his true account, Mendez brought $10,000 cash to set up the fake production company. Within four days, Studio Six (the number of Americans) was created, office space was rented, business cards were printed, and phone lines were installed. Though Chambers’ co-producer was actually another make-up artist, and Alan Arkin’s composite character in the film is fictionalized, all the other characters are real. The two producers and Mendez only needed a script and discovered one, named Lord of Light. Mendez was known for his frequent use of knock-knock jokes, so he renamed the abandoned science fiction script Argo, which was part of a crude knock-knock punch line.

Ben Affleck and cast in ‘Argo.’ (Argo, PR still.)

When Mendez questioned the need for paying for options on the script, Chambers answered, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”

Perhaps scarier in real life than the typical Islamic Jihadist, the Writers Guild of America was and is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

The Argo story was quite a yarn in real life, and the only thing that seems more surprising about it today is that it took so long for Hollywood to film the story. That said, now that it’s here, the film Argo has proved an enduring hit, and its Oscar nominations were no surprise.

A week before the Oscars, the WGA  gave its nod to Argo, honoring screenwriter Chris Terrio with the Best Adapted Screenplay award. Meanwhile, writer Mark Boal received the prize for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Zero Dark Thirty.

During filming, Affleck captured countless brilliant shots. Granted access to C.I.A. Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Affleck panned the right-hand side of the lobby in one sequence, capturing the rows of stars that cover this wall: each represents the life of an unnamed CIA operative who died in service to his country, a bit like a miniature Arlington National Cemetery. But, with his film based in 1980 rather 2012, Affleck’s film editors had to edit those rows of stars out—a loss, perhaps, of a genuinely moving patriotic memorial, but realistic and true to the time the Argo mission was carried out.

Though the runway chase scene at the ending of Argo was added for dramatic effect, the voiceover at the very end notes that the hostages were released on the last day of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. After 444 days, the hostages actually departed Tehran at 12:25 pm Eastern time on January 20th, just as Ronald Reagan concluded his inaugural address as the 40th President of the United States. This fact probably won’t hinder producers Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov from receiving their Oscar, however.

In contrast to Argo’s virtual lock on one or more Oscars, whether Zero Dark Thirty receives the Best Picture may depend on whether academy members believe the movie endorses torture. The waterboarding interrogations portrayed at the beginning of the film are visually dramatic and emotionally disturbing. Edged with a hardcore roughness, these scenes do not show torture to be an effective tool that produces actionable intelligence. Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty does authentically report that two detainees subject to enhanced interrogation techniques refused to reveal the name of the bin Laden’s courier, indirectly confirming the courier’s importance.

Zero Dark Thirty,

‘Zero Dark Thirty’s‘ Jessica Chastain in a lonely moment. (PR still, ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’)

like Argo, employs some artistic license to propel its story relentlessly forward. For example, CIA base chief Jennifer Lynne Mathews was killed at Camp Chapman outside Khost in southeastern Afghanistan. However, the Jordanian doctor, who drove past three checkpoints before detonating his suicide car bomb, purportedly had information about the location of Egyptian doctor Ayman al Zawahiri, not Osama bin Laden. Likewise, Bigelow uses artistic license to create Maya, the composite character played by redhead Jessica Chastain, a Best Actress nominee for the part.

Whereas much of Zero Dark Thirty centers around the actual raid on the Osama bin Laden compound, it’s an historical fact that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden got their foothold in Afghanistan during the 1980s as they contributed to the guerilla resistance to the Soviet-backed puppet government in control of the country at that time. The earlier and sometimes overlooked Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) documents the C.I.A.’s secret war against the Soviet Union during that period; which, indirectly at least, was one of the ways the U.S. began to get entangled in the long-running Afgani tragedy. Starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War provides the real-life backstory to Zero Dark Thirty; namely that the Mujahideen, who defeated the Soviets in their Vietnam, later become the leaders and foot soldiers of al-Qaeda.

The most accurate portrayal of the years leading up to the killing of bin Laden, however, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this February. Manhunt, scheduled to be aired on HBO in May, documents how a group of female CIA agents, known as “the Sisterhood,” followed al-Qaeda for nearly two decades, warning President Bill Clinton and others about their desire to harm America, a disturbing fact that continues to haunt policymakers.

Though bin Laden was eventually killed, the other al-Qaeda leader, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri still has an identical $25 million bounty on his head. Believed to be hiding inside Pakistan, the Egyptian posted a video on Jihadist websites on September 10th, 2012, bemoaning the loss of the Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi. “I proudly announce to … the Mujahideen, the martyrdom of the lion of Libya … “

According to a Reuters story entitled “Al Qaeda confirms death of bin Laden confidant LIbi” and published from Cairo shortly after midnight, at 2:23 a.m. EDT on September 11, 2012, Ayman al Zawahiri urged Muslims and “particularly Libyans” to take revenge. “His blood urges you and incites you to fight and kill the crusaders.” Later that day, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the Al-Qaeda affiliate and other extremists attacked the Benghazi consulate in Libya, resulting in the first death of a U.S. ambassador since Carter’s presidency. Clearly, the events portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty brought a definitive end to one long-running chapter in this country’s long-running battle against Al Qaeda and its remnants. But the ongoing guerilla campaign continues.


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