Yann Martel, David Magee, and Ang Lee, 2012
#26, 2012 Skandies
This is a very faithful adaptation of the book, which is too bad because while the book was a pretty good page-turner, its message was idiotic. At least in the movie you get to see the tiger. A tiger is a handsome beast, even when it is composed of ones and zeroes.
I only really have one note about the movie: I was struck by the way it rigs the comparison between the two stories the protagonist tells. In the book, of course, both stories consist of words on a page. In the movie, we actually see the fantasy story unfold before us with eye-candy special effects, while the more prosaic story is delivered to us as a monologue, just words from a talking head. I suspect that the worry was that showing us the story with the humans in the same manner that the movie showed us the story with the animals would too clearly demonstrate that the second story was the real one and the first a flight of an overcompensating imagination, which would undermine the message that which story is real doesn't matter. (It surprised me, though! I assumed that the reason they cast a name actor as the cook was that he'd be coming back at the end.)
Tony Mendez, Joshuah Bearman, Chris Terrio, and Ben Affleck, 2012
#45, 2012 Skandies; AMPAS Best Picture
This movie is not what I was expecting! I try to have as few expectations as possible before I watch a film, but since this won the Oscar I couldn't help but hear a little bit about it: I knew it was set during the Iran hostage crisis, and I even considered putting it off until I got to Jimmy Carter in my presidents series. I was imagining something like Zero Dark Thirty with a less triumphant ending, appropriate to the malaise era. Instead, it pulls the Schindler's List trick of finding some uplifting thread within a historical horror, focusing on the rescue of six Americans who had escaped to the Canadian ambassador's house during the storming of the embassy. The twist: with every plausible cover story failing the pass muster for one reason or another — e.g., they can't be teachers, because the Western schools in Iran have long since been closed — the CIA agent charged with retrieving them tries something bolder. This was the era of a million and one outfits trying to cash in on the Star Wars craze — so the cover story is that these people are a Canadian film crew in Iran to do some location scouting for a low-budget space opera. And selling that story requires actually going through the motions of making the movie: optioning a script, having a reading that makes it into Variety, and so forth. So it's easy to see why this won the Oscar. There is no message that Hollywood loves more than that movies are important. And not just movies: big dumb trashy movies that make a lot of money. Yes, Oscar voters — your life's work may look pretty silly, but it's actually saving the world! Give yourselves a hand!
Argo is based on a true story, but everything has been pumped up for maximum thriller points: every obstacle to the Americans' escape is overcome at the very last second, to the point that you have police cars frantically chasing their plane down the runway. I suppose that in a movie like this formulaic excitement beats authentic anticlimax, so I guess I can't really blame the filmmakers. I mean, even though I'm being kind of snarky, it is an effective thriller! And I liked this glimpse of what was going on in the world while I was in kindergarten, too preoccupied with mastering cursive and re-reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the fifteenth time to even be aware that there was such a place as Iran. After the movie was over I did a little poking around to see how well it matched up with the real story, and I found a few lists of the film's anachronisms: that coffee maker didn't exist until 1987, those blue LEDs didn't exist until 1993, that sort of thing. The one that jumped out at me wasn't on any of those lists, though: at one point the two main CIA guys are drinking out of paper cups printed with the Solo Jazz design, which wasn't released until 1992. For the most part this is trivia, but it does suggest that a third of a century is an interesting sort of time gap: narrow enough that events on the other side are well within the memory of people who don't necessarily consider themselves all that old, but wide enough that the far side is a historical period requiring serious research to get right. At the moment conservatives are trying to scuttle the agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program, on the basis that Iran is too crazy and scary to deal with, a sentiment rooted in the events depicted in Argo. But how many people really remember them? Let's say that you have to be 45+ to have a clear memory of the Iran hostage crisis. That's 39% of Americans, and 23% of Iranians. To the rest of us, it's someone else's grievance.