The Academy Plays it Safe

By Joe Korba

Jessica Chastain as 'Maya.'

The 2013 Academy Awards have a strong slate of contenders for Best Picture, including ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Argo,’ Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ and the film I consider the best of all the nominees, ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ However, if I had to wager my hard-earned money on who is going to be hoisting the Oscar for Best Picture tonight my choice would, easily, be Ben Affleck for his Iran-hostage crises thriller ‘Argo.’ Which is a shame.


Not that ‘Argo’ is a bad film, or Affleck a bad director, but it is the kind of movie Academy Awards voters always choose over more challenging fare like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and Quentin Tarentino’s explosively violent and profane (and awesome) homage to 70’s blaxploitation flicks ‘Django Unchained.’


In fact, I quite like Argo. I think Affleck’s directorial work is top-notch – ‘Gone Baby Gone,’ his directorial debut, is an engaging neo-noir set in Boston and ‘The Town,’ his penultimate film, about beantown bank robbers is fantastic. ‘Argo’ tells the story of a true-life attempt by the CIA to extract Americans from Iran in the early 80s after the coup d’état that put Ayatollah Khomeini in power and made the country a very bad place for Americans.  ‘Argo’ is inspiring, suspenseful, and posits that movies (even fake ones) can, literally, save lives. That, my friends, is Academy Voter catnip. It’s why ‘Argo,’ or maybe Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ which is a fine film but could have been custom made in an Oscar Season laboratory of pandering, is going to take Best Picture this year. (I fully support Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor for his turn as our 16th President.)


Kathryn Bigelow’s film, ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ about the decade long hunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks Osama Bin Laden, is, in my humble opinion, the best movie of the past few years. The problem is that it’s uncomfortable and challenging. Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in a packed movie theater on a Saturday night was the most harrowing pop-culture experience I’ve had in a long while. The movie opens with a black screen, cloaking the entire theater in pitch-darkness, while real recordings of emergency responder calls after the planes struck the World Trade Center play. Terrified people screaming, crying and begging for help will surely spur strong emotions in most Americans. Some saw Bigelow’s decision to include this as the opening to her film as distasteful, but it sure as hell set the tone for the movie to come.


‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a Rorschach Test of a movie. It presents torture of prisoners at CIA black sites in an uncompromising and terrifying way. The film’s protagonist Maya, a dogged and driven CIA operative, portrayed by phenomenal actress Jessica Chastain, is even horrified by the brutality she witnesses at first. However, she comes to accept the stark reality of torture as necessary to extract information from prisoners. There are soon scenes of Maya questioning detainees along with a large CIA operative that continually smashes the shackled prisoner in the face when Maya isn’t happy with the answers she is given. Bigelow is unflinching.


The Rorschach aspect comes from the way the information is presented – it’s laid out before the viewer to interpret it as they will. I’ve discussed this movie with both liberal and conservative friends, who all seem to love it and take something different from it. Some see it as validation for the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques used by the CIA, others see it as an indictment against the moral lows we, as Americans, were reduced to in the ‘War on Terrorism.’ For my part, I can understand both points-of-view. If torture did, in fact, lead to actionable intelligence to kill Bin Laden, that’s simply a fact, albeit an uncomfortable one. But, I’m sure most would agree that it’s not the preferred way we like to view ourselves. It can be seen though a certain kind of viewer’s eyes as the point in which Americans decided they were willing to accept unthinkable moral lows in the global theater of war. We were no longer the white-hat wearing, John Wayne Western-style avatars of righteousness in the world. Regardless, I highly recommend seeing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and forming your own opinion on Bigelow’s divisive and difficult film.


Both ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘Django Unchained’ present scenarios that create cognitive dissonance for viewers, showing terrible images and, most disturbing of all, violence that actually happened in our history. Even though we’re further removed as a nation from Slavery, it is still a fact that at a certain point in our past our American ancestors considered human beings cheap agriculture equipment. A dark stain on history that Tarentino, even in all his bloody violence and retribution, doesn’t let us off the hook from. Both the horrors of slavery and enhanced interrogation were, at some point, committed in our name, something that makes these types of movies unpalatable for Academy Voters.  They don’t seem to like movies, no matter the quality, that point a finger back into the faces of the American movie-goers. So, something ‘safe’ like ‘Argo’ or ‘Lincoln’ will probably win the Academy Award for Best Picture this evening. I hope that doesn’t dissuade anyone from seeing the excellent and powerful nominees who proved too dark and too divisive for award’s season.



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