Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Problem with Argo

The line for Epcot is insane.
I enjoyed Ben Affleck's Argo, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, and Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran's 24, formerly on Fox. These three properties have a bit in common:

1. They include some of the best suspense writing of the past dozen years.
2. I probably won't ever watch them again.

It comes down to character. It's fun to watch characters change. I could watch Pixar's Up once a week. Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, also. The difference I'm talking about is one regarding plot-driven vs. character-driven. Reactive vs. active. And when I refer to active, I don't mean just physically. A storyteller knows that the physical journey (the trip to Iran to free the Americans, the hunt for Bin Laden, stopping a bomb) is only half the story. The other half is the emotional component: how does Carl Fredricksen change over the course of Up? How does Jean Valjean change in Les Miserables?

Slate critic Dana Stevens writes that Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez, "...remains something of an emotional cipher, and not in a mysterious way, just in a dull one... The night before Mendez and the houseguests make their big break for the airport, Affleck gives us a dusk-to-dawn montage of Mendez alone in his hotel room, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey as he wrestles with whether or not to go through with the plan. With the right actor, this wordless interlude could have made for a powerful existential mini-drama: the dark night of the CIA-agent soul. Instead, it just sort of felt like watching Ben Affleck get hammered."

I'd say that it's even more than picking the right actor. The bit about Mendez "taking a break" from his wife and child seems tacked on, and resolves itself so quickly in the end that one is forced to wonder if it was written by the same writer. How is Mendez a lackluster father? Why does he need to "take a break" from his family? How do his actions in Iran help him realize that his son needs him as a role model? They don't. He has a job. He does it. The end. The film is entertaining, but you already know how it ends. There's a plot in Argo, but it lacks a theme. What's Argo trying to tell us? Something about courage, I'd guess, but for who's sake? Mendez is driven, but why? For himself? His son? His country? We simply don't know why he does what he does. We just know that he does it, and while it's suspenseful, a potential flat performance comes out of a flat character.

There's a similar issue at work in Zero Dark Thirty. Like Argo, the direction, cinematography, and production design are notably tight. But I'm looking at this through screenwriting glasses, and the view dismays.

Jessica Chastain plays firebrand CIA operative Maya. Detroit News critic Tom Long says, "Here's how good an actress Jessica Chastain is: She can make a hero out of nobody... Chastain is basically working with nothing here: We have no insights into Maya's background, her personal life, her inner turmoils, nothing."

The plot question of Zero is, "Will Maya catch Bin Laden?" The thematic question, the emotional component is... do you know? Because I don't. Maya's obsessed with finding Bin Laden. That's all the information we have about her. Sure, her friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) dies in a terrorist attack (mid-film) and that strengthens Maya's resolve... but Maya's already firing on all cylinders, by then. Does her friend's death change anything? No, it doesn't. Maya was already treating the hunt like a personal crusade, so much so that when it does become a personal crusade, the energy level, already high, doesn't creep much higher.

Did Maya lose someone in the 9/11 attacks? Does she come from a family of federal operatives, and she was never good enough for her father? What drives her? What drives Tony Mendez in Argo? What drives Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in 24?

They work for the government: it's their job to be driven, to catch the bad guys. But not everyone is drawn to that line of work, and the people who are appear endlessly fascinating to those of us on the outside. Look at the success of a show like Dick Wolf's Law and Order. Of course, Law and Order is also plot-driven. It's the process that interests us, as opposed to the people.

Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are films about processes. In the midst of all their suspense, people take a back seat.

To me, at least, people are more fascinating. I'm not saying that every film should be just about character or just about story.

I'm saying that every film should be just about both.

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