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.
I think we saw very different ZDTs.
ARGO is a very good film, but what prevents it from being truly great isn't the research (very little of which Affleck had to work hard to uncover, as the tale was told many times over by his adviser, the actual Tony Mendenz, by Wired magazine and again by Chris Terrio), but the ways the film deviated from it, especially in the end, especially when it really didn't have to at all. That, along with Affleck casting himself as a low-key Little Grey Man master of disguise.
ZDT doesn't strike me as a superhero falsification. It's an episodic procedural about a painstaking intelligence puzzle. The biggest problem ZDT faces is condensing the sprawling tale into one feature film. And I'll grant you it would have been better as a mini-series of at least 6 hours or more. That way we could have seen the failure at Tora Bora, the intel-SOF fusion in Iraq and a more complete version of the AF/PAK manhunt that didn't have to create misleading composite characters and elide important events and digressions.
I've read dozens of intelligence memoirs myself, plus scores of other books about special operators and spies and I'd say the most frustrating thing about ZDT is how good some of the details are and how random and wholly made-up others seem. Aside from the raid, for instance, the most clearly accurate sequence is the one with the triple agent bomber. Probably because there's already a great book about this. But there are so many other head-scratching details that make no sense. Really? The best most secure way to follow a targeted SUV is to pay a "picket line" of low level Pakistanis, none of whom would dare leak anything to the ISI?
Mark Boal was obviously up against a daunting task racing the clock trying to do original research as he was writing and the end result is not as good as it could have been, but far better than it would have been in most other hands with the same deadlines.
And I do think you're barking up the wrong tree if you're contrasting the anecdotes in tragicomic memoirs like those written by Bob Baer or BLOWING MY COVER and THE HUMAN FACTOR with how good the CIA, working with the military and the entire intelligence community, eventually became at targeting individuals. It all happened in Iraq, during and shortly after the surge. ZDT unfortunately leaves all of that out.
ZDT also, somewhat by necessity, leaves out any Humint operations that impacted the Bin Laden raid because nobody's talking about those, not even whoever talked to Boal. There's not even the whiff of a safe house on the ground in Abottabad (which strangely does make an appearance in the Weinstein's TV film).
Anyway, I wish you'd do a separate post about how ZDT sucks in more detail so we could keep the conversation going, but I doubt you even hated it passionately and specifically enough to muster the energy for that.
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