Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Catching Up with the Oscars: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo

Though I don't pick my movies based on the awards they receive, I am always curious to see who the Oscar winners are. I don't know why I care, because the Academy and I don't really see eye-to-eye on what makes a good movie. But the Oscars aren't about popular opinion, and I'm sure they have very good reasons for preferring sadistically nihilistic narratives over good ol' superheroes saving the day. However, the past couple years have surprised me for nominating a few movies people actually care about and have seen.

Though I wasn't able to see many of the nominees in the theater, I was interested in them. So, now that they are coming out on DVD, I'm able to catch up and see if the hype is really worth it. Below, I'll review three Best Picture nominees (one of which is the winner) that I've had the opportunity to see recently. Interestingly, these three are rather similar in that they all contain heavy thematic material (they did make the Oscars, after all) dealing with aspects of politics and the treatment of humanity.

This is probably the most accessible, family-friendly, positive movie of the three. (It's also rated only PG-13.) Who doesn't like Lincoln for what he did for the equality of man in this country? The movie's subject matter had broad appeal to begin with, and the performances are definitely top-notch. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his portrayal of Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field were both nominees for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively.

Everybody raved so much about Day-Lewis's performance that I was that sort of skeptical you get when you wonder if something can possibly meet, never mind exceed, your expectations. When I finally saw him in the role, I was both surprised and not. I knew he would be good, so I wasn't surprised there. But I was surprised by how much I liked him, despite constantly being drawn out of the character as I wondered what exactly he did differently than other actors to make himself stand out and meld simultaneously. Nick loved him, too, and now wants to read a biography about the guy. (I didn't care that much.) Lincoln is fascinating in this telling, and I wonder how close all of it is to the truth. Was Lincoln such a great storyteller? Day-Lewis captures that back-in-the-day vibe you get from some older men and grandfathers who always have a story to tell, and the stories always seem like they are from another world, even though they are just from an older time. You can't help but love those guys, even when they annoy you by interrupting your busy life with a tale of slower times. Even the way they talk is slow and measured, as if they still lived in those times. How do you recreate that? Day-Lewis does.

I could go on about the other actors. Many are memorable, and the dialog, especially in Congress among the State Representatives, is lively and entertaining (otherwise, the politicking would have bored me to tears).

I did find the movie's start to be a little slow. I'm not all that into politics and war in movies, and this one is full of both. Once it got going, I was invested, though I still found the politics of it all to drag on a bit. Perhaps that's how it felt in real life, as Congress fought seemingly endlessly over the very thing the Civil War was all about. It had to drag on for them, too. I know movies take some artistic license, so I don't know how much I should be trusting this movie as a history lesson, but I hope they got it right historically, because they got it right on the emotional cinematic level and it would be disappointing to discover they were making up details to garner interest or heighten cinematic tension.

Lincoln is two and a half hours long. As my husband joked the other night, can a Best Picture nominee even be under two hours? I found it a tad long and was somewhat disappointed that the actual shooting that led to Lincoln's death isn't even shown, but I can see how including it might have sensationalized that evil too much. After all, the movie is about the kind of character it takes to free a nation of slaves from selfish, wicked men. And what a character he had and was.

Zero Dark Thirty
Of the three, this may be my least favorite, perhaps because it's just so brutal. Torture is sickening, even if the person being tortured is evil. It's also a huge moral issue, one I'm not sure where to come down on. Is it right to torture some to save others? It's obviously something common individuals should not do, but when it comes to the government, what is right or wrong? Turning the other cheek is one thing when you yourself are under fire, but when should our duty to protect the innocent, the orphan, and the widow come into play? Is it then permissible to fight fire with fire, so to speak? Or should we still be humane? It's a question our government had to deal with during the 10-year search for Osama bin Laden, and this movie asks it but doesn't fully answer. How could they? It's a tough one.

But the movie is a fascinating watch for one reason: the woman behind the death of bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the obsessed agent, Maya, who spends 10 years, her entire career out of school, following a lead nobody else would consider in the belief it would lead her to the man responsible for over 3000 American deaths on September 11, 2001. Chastain was nominated for Best Actress for this role, and if you aren't convinced she deserved the nod, watch her ditsy but loveable performance in The Help. What a difference of characters!

I can't say how much of the movie is fully true or, again, how much artistic license is taken. The scene where American soldiers finally get bin Laden is likely the truest part, as it's well documented. The rest is a combination of character study and political maneuverings, which are more subjective. But if the real woman behind Chastain's character is anything like what the movie portrays, I feel sorry for her, enmeshed in all that brutality, surrounded by evil, alone. Where do you go after ten years of that? Essentially, that's the last question we are left with, which is a downer on a movie about finally beating the bad guy. At the end, we all sigh with relief, but we don't feel better because it was an exhausting long haul of a ride.

And as an audience, we get to experience in a fraction of a way just how long the journey was as we sit through over two and a half hours of this heavy stuff. Not surprisingly, with such content, the movie is rated R for some language but mostly for disturbing violence and imagery.

Argo won Best Picture (and doesn't even top two hours!) this year against Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and others. Of these three movies, it is the one I would have picked, too. Where Lincoln drags on a bit, Argo keeps moving. Where Lincoln's focus becomes rather broad (ending a civil war, freeing a race of slaves), Argo's remains narrow and to-the-point (getting six people out of Iran before they are caught and executed as spies). Plus, I enjoy tension and suspense more than politics, but that's just me.

Though all three movies are based on true events, I think Argo's story intrigued me the most for being so-crazy-it-just-might-work. In order to get six American embassy employees safely out of the country without raising suspicion from the Iranians as to their real identities, the CIA concocts a far-fetched plan to disguise them as Canadian filmmakers. The cool thing is, in order to make it believable, they buy a script, set up a film company with a bigwig to back it in Hollywood, hire actors, draw up storyboards, and advertise. Once the set-up is there, one CIA agent (Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, also the director of Argo) goes into Iran. His mission: transform the six Americans into a film location scouting crew and get them out. Everyone loves movies, even Iranians, and who wouldn't like their own backyard to be the location of a movie set? It's rather brilliant, but oh, so dangerous. With the Iranians working double-time to figure out the identities of the hidden Americans and the U.S. government balking at the plan, even after things are set in motion, the pressure is all on Tony to make it work and not get anyone, including himself, killed in the process.

I'm always a bit skeptical when someone wants to take the lead role in a film he or she is directing. I don't know why a person would do it. It seems kind of arrogant, but perhaps, in this case, Ben Affleck simply wanted to take on all the responsibility of getting it right. It does seem like the details are as close to the truth as possible (though I can't say for sure and only suppose that because of the remarkable effort taken to make the actors look like their real-life counterparts), though I'm sure events are slightly condensed and embellished to add cinematic tension (minor SPOILER alert: I'm thinking of the chase at the end here). Whatever the reasons Affleck chose to simultaneously direct and star, it works. He underplays his character outwardly, but Affleck's face speaks more than his character ever needs to. So much can be conveyed in that man's stare! He brings depth and humanity to his character and to the plight of the Americans he is sent to rescue. Though the story is about saving the embassy employees, it centers on Tony, the guy who believed a fake movie could make it happen. He is the anchor of the plot.

The movie is rated R for violence (much less so than Zero Dark Thirty) and language. The F-word is used in a rather unique way, and I have to admit, it even got me (who hates the word) to laugh. Humorous moments like that exist to give relief to the otherwise heavy tension pervading the story. The movie balances the tension so well that even though it's sometimes dark, you don't feel utterly drained and hopeless like you do watching Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, Argo is rather hopeful.

Of the three nominees reviewed here, Argo is the most rewarding to watch, combining an awesome true story (a movie about making a fake movie!) with CIA agents, suspense (it is a life-or-death rescue mission), daring odds, a little Hollywood drama, a foreign setting (the Middle East is always intriguing in one way or another), and gripping characters. I don't want to give any SPOILERS, but I think the cat's already out of the bag: this one even has a feel-good ending! (Is Hollywood going soft?) Argo also won in the Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, so you know it is well put-together. It has good flow and kept my interest throughout.

So, did Hollywood actually get it right this time? In Argo, they found a story compelling to us all, one with emotional gravitas and a real-life superhero! I'm gonna say it: kudos to the Academy! And if the Academy and I can agree on something, it just might be worth your time to check it out!

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