Or is it? I suspect not, but that’s not the main issue. Critics have reacted against the movie since it won Best Picture, but for misguided reasons: it’s self-congratulatory for the film industry, it plays at a cynicism about US foreign affairs in the opening storyboard sequence only to annul that sentiment with a feel-good CIA story, etc. Its politics are too narrowminded to meet an expanding, globalized world. All of this is arguably true (I’m sympathetic to it), but why is no one talking about the flat characters, their near-total lack of development, the implausibly “this-is-the-intelligence-world” dialogue, the usually bland mis-en-scene or the artificially rushed pacing?
To backtrack: Argo is an immensely enjoyable film. Its plot is second-to-none, and the editing, photography, and sound are excellent. It’s a really good movie, just surprising as a Best Picture winner. Underappreciated/classified operations teams achieving amazing things and the amount of national investment that went into saving six lives is interesting, but not the kind of topics that made Slumdog Milloinaire, Million Dollar Baby, or The King’s Speech into the movies they were. And it’s laudable for not going for too much sentimentalism or the kind of philosophical ‘pouring it in from the top’ that makes a movie’s ‘reach exceed its grasp’, as the old saying goes. But nonetheless, movies like Zero Dark Thirty had equally modest reaches that were grasped perfectly, and Beasts of the Southern Wild was more thematically ambitious and mostly succeeded. So what is it about Argo that makes it so appealing, aka what qualifies it as a top-caliber movie?
Perhaps its sincerity. While Zero Dark mostly dwelt in the uncertainty innate to intelligence and necessary (?) moral compromises, Argo possesses the advantage of historical distance that allows us to take it as an unadulterated triumph. Despite the success or failure of its other elements, the movie’s plot and story is incredible, stranger than fiction and more compelling, too. Amidst a world questioning the moral efficacy of anything at all (c. Homeland), Argo presents a simple good-vs-evil scenario in which the good wins out. The desire for such a simple, and historically justified, narrative is perhaps the reason Django received nominations, despite implicitly endorsing the same structure of power and brutality that, on a larger scale, created one of the worst atrocities in American history. Thankfully, the straight-up revenge narrative was too in-your-face for Best Picture, but Django is laudable at the least for taking an honest view of how even the avengers have their own violence, their own flaws. But Argo, of course, makes the point that the operation was achieved peacefully, with no transgression on the CIA’s part. Not to criticize that – it’s probably true – but only to make the observation that therein lies its appeal.
What about Lincoln? Doesn’t it offer a sincere narrative to a conflicted, questioning world? It does, but Lincoln‘s moral universe is far removed from our own. The story works (with a tour-de-force by Daniel-Day Lewis and a brilliantly witty screenplay), but it lacks the relevance of Argo. Zero Dark dwells too much within this relevance and its moral ambiguity; Argo toes the line and justifies a relevant, contemporary American narrative while maintaining enough historical distance to keep its narrative un-complex.
All this to say, perhaps Argo‘s strength was the emotional implications of its story. Perhaps people in an anxious time in history want a simple good guys vs bad guys narrative that seems just complicated and relevant enough for plausibility. And in celebrating a true triumph in twentieth-century American history, and in bringing that story to life, Argo does its viewers a major service. Its Oscar win, however, has rightfully called back into question the criteria we use to evaluate movies, and its illumined a desperation to believe in something Good and Certain which belies our uncertainty and the degree to which we feel threatened by a crisis of value. Argo provides a salve for this uncertainty, but in doing so it evades the more fundamental issues of life which have more often dominated Oscar winning films.
But let’s return to what’s good about Argo. It’s wonderful to see a massive CIA effort on behalf of six fairly normal individuals; in some way, the underdeveloped characters help make this point, that it’s not because the six Americans are extraordinary or emotionally appealing that they should be rescued, but precisely in their anonymous, everyman character as humans that they take on value, or at least are found worthy of a rescue effort by the Americans and Canadians.
It’s this simple affirmation of human life and human efforts on behalf of that life that make Argo so appealing, especially in an age of extreme anxiety about what has worth and what doesn’t. It’s a triumph, in this sense, but the weak character development misses on a crucial point: humans aren’t valuable merely because they are everyman, but in fact we are valuable despite our weaknesses, in our weaknesses. Silver Linings Playbook (mental illness, anger), Beasts of the Southern Wild (alcoholism, flawed fatherhood and filial duty), and to a lesser extent Lincoln (high-strung First Lady, cutting some checks n’ balances corners) that make this point about the old cliche of ‘beauty in brokenness’, or whatever. But Argo‘s ‘us and them’ narrative is less complex because this weakness isn’t present in any meaningful way. It’s an unfortunate irony of the contemporary world that uncertainty about humans’ value, religious value, the value of political agendas, etc makes us take refuge in simple narratives of strength and triumph, because even there the threat of unreconciled weakness, failure, and loss is always lurking. On the contrary, the movies that engage this weakness head-on and can still affirm the irreducible beauty of human existence, within suffering rather than apart from it, are the enduring, significant stories that tend to be remembered for decades.
Hold that thought. Let’s take a quick look at one of the movie’s most memorable shots, when the American ‘film crew’ is surrounded by strangers in a bazaar. Threats loom from every side, and this visual expression of contemporary, Age-of-Terrorism anxiety is similar to some of Homeland‘s frames. The prominent, unfocused figure in the foreground suggests the indeterminacy of potential danger, and the sharp focus on Affleck draws the audience’s gaze onto the one point of visual certainty in the shot: he is our man, but the crowd presses in on him visually, close to overwhelming. The confusion of an anonymous man, with a hidden identity, in a hostile world is brilliantly, if unoriginally, expressed. It’s the anxiety of the ‘good guy’ beleaguered – again, it appeals to the contemporary mindset by positing a moral simplicity of the man under siege. We attach our hopes to him, knowing he can prevail if he can just weather the hostile environment and come home. But in Homeland‘s more emotionally-attuned universe, for example, Carrie’s home is just as oppressive and threatening as ‘the world.’
So what about Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself”? What about the old literary idea, perhaps best expressed in the Bible, that the only way to truly affirm the world is to find meaning in weakness, suffering, the theme of the least being the greatest? As far as I can see, the last decade or so of Oscar winners, and a few aformentioned 2013 nominees, have managed this task quite well, or the very least (No Country) have been honest about the complexities of human life, the truth of our frailty.
If there really is some crisis of values or search for meaning going on right now, then perhaps the solution isn’t a flight from fragility and moral ambiguity, but a style of dwelling within them meaningfully, redemptively. Again, I can’t help but plug Silver Linings and Beasts of the Southern Wild on this one. They give us what we most need from film: not a brief escape from uncertainty and anxiety, but the faint tracings of a map for how to live within them, even aestheticize them.
As a final note, Anna Karenina shouldn’t hold the Costume Design Oscar as long as Affleck’s characters are still wearing those ridiculous glasses.