In other words, the writer sacrificed the facts not to art, nor to greater thematic meaning, but to his audience’s attention span — to the prerequisites of commercial cinema in a Darwinian entertainment marketplace.
The chief sins in that marketplace are boredom and confusion: Above all else, a mainstream movie must make sense, must have a progression of conflict and resolution familiar from a century of moviemaking if not millennia of storytelling. Even if you’re Tony Kushner.
The same goes for Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio, although no one’s making quite the same fuss about “Argo.” Tony Mendez, the CIA “exfiltration” expert played by Affleck in the film, has written his own play-by-play version of the Iranian rescue; called “A Classic Case of Deception,” it’s easily Googleable at the CIA’s website. And it’s a fascinating read that lacks the most viscerally dramatic moments in the movie. There’s no “location scout” in which the six Americans have to play their fake Hollywood roles in public. There’s no tense ringing telephone picked up at the very last minute in Los Angeles. And there’s certainly no tarmac chase. In reality, Mendez and the Americans got on the plane and it flew off. Period.
But that wouldn’t make a very interesting movie, would it? In fact, it’s those inventions that have arguably contributed to the film’s popular success and Affleck’s revived career. He and Terrio haven’t just told a good story, they’ve made a good Hollywood story. When facts collide with the entertainment industry’s profit motive — the overriding need to make a movie appeal to as wide an audience as possible — the facts invariably lose out.
“Argo” and “Lincoln” deal with events that took place well in the past, so in a sense, time is on their side. “Zero Dark Thirty” is in a different pickle, one that recalls the furor over the 1978 best picture winner “The Deer Hunter.” In that Vietnam War drama, writer-director Michael Cimino had his POW characters forced by their Viet Cong captors to play harrowing games of Russian roulette, with horrifying results.
The film seemed to imply such games actually occurred, and Cimino later made vague noises about reading news articles to that effect. Newsman Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting, called the Russian roulette metaphor “a bloody lie.” Critic Roger Ebert defended Cimino’s artistic license. The film won best picture and, 25 years later, few modern viewers hold those scenes accountable to documented reality. They play like what they are: galvanizing drama.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques ultimately lead to a suspected terrorist (played by Reda Kateb) volunteering information about one of Osama bin Laden’s couriers. This has been taken by many critics, on all points of the political spectrum, as a defense of torture as well as a lie. In point of fact, the Dec. 21, 2012, statement by CIA Acting Director Michael Morell is a remarkable work of crypto-speak: “The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.
And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.” Does that clear the matter up?
For her part, Bigelow has not only claimed the usual creative license but has dug her heels in, arguing that she has made “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” And it’s true that just because “Zero Dark Thirty” refuses to lecture its audience doesn’t mean it lacks a point of view. On the contrary, Bigelow’s choice (unlike Spielberg’s or Affleck’s) makes her movie harder to watch rather than easier, throwing the issue of what lines of humanity we crossed to find bin Laden up to each viewer and his or her conscience. This is probably as it should be.
It’s telling that there has been much less of a to-do over the movie’s reduction of a real-life team of female CIA analysts — known as “the Sisterhood” in intelligence circles — to one hot (if somber) babe played by Jessica Chastain. That’s OK, it seems, since everyone knows a movie needs a lone-wolf hero and some eye candy, and if the two are combined into one character, all the better. So what if it obscures the history of those who really were responsible for bringing bin Laden to justice?Continued...