Rules It Exemplifies:
- Know the Way the World Works: What makes Argo so good is the same thing that made Zero Dark Thirty so phony. ZDT shows us what the CIA wishes it was: swaggering, hyper-focused, ultra-serious ass-kickers in a world full of pansies. It attempts to re-write a sloppy, shameful, sadistic, ten-year-long fiasco into a brilliant step-by-step manhunt by Very Serious People. Argo, on the other hand, starts by admitting the simple truth: The CIA, by design, is an agency of last resort. All they can do, at their best, is dive into messy situations and try to make the most of the mess. ZDT imagines stoic superheroes doing righteous work in a black and white world (or, more to the point, white vs. brown), while Argo’s spies are everyday schlubs doing an absurd job in morally-murky situations the best way they know how. Argo had its own falsifications (pretending they were almost caught at the end when they weren’t) but, crucially, its not lying to itself, or us, about how the world works.
- Listen to Real Cops and Criminals: I’ve read way too many CIA memoirs and the casual argot in Argo rang true in so many little ways, whereas every macho “You can’t handle the truth!” line in ZDT rang laughably false. (ZDT actually showed one of its not-tough-enough bosses practicing his putting in the office! Base your details on original observations, not clichés that you picked up from old New Yorker cartoons!)
- Ideas are the Enemy of Observations: But Affleck’s eye for detail also serves a deeper purpose. He keeps circumventing our urge to form parallels between this story and our current troubles. Instead, he keeps reminding us that 1979 is a foreign country, giving us an avalanche of amusing “I forgot all about that!” period details (I love the wrecked Hollywood sign!). His all-too-human Iranians (sometimes scary, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes both) would rather look back to 1953 than look ahead to 2012.