On paper, Zero Dark Thirty should have raked in every award in sight -- a high profile film about the killing of America's biggest enemy, a moment of triumph for Barack Obama and SEAL Team Six -- directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who won a Best Director Oscar two years ago for The Hurt Locker. It was even written by the same writer, who also won Best Original Screenplay two years ago. Everyone should have loved Zero Dark Thirty, right? But something odd happened. We didn't hear the raves that everyone expected. Some say it was because the film seemed to imply that torture was an acceptable technique for obtaining information. Not me. It was something else.
The same thing happened with Lincoln. The film had the proper pedigree with its high-profile director, cast, writer, massive production budget, promotion, and advertising, not to mention an historically heroic lead character in president Abraham Lincoln. The whole project seemed to be put together with an Academy Award for Best Picture in its future. But, other than universal acclaim for the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln just didn't win any of the big movie awards.
But I think there was a good reason why, this year, all the big awards went to Argo, a film, not about taking out America's biggest enemy, or about one of America's biggest presidential heroes, but much smaller story about smuggling six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis. On the surface, it seems odd that Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and other films from high-profile directors like Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and Ridley Scott (Prometheus) lost out to a relatively small film like Argo in the awards competitions.
I believe that the reason that audiences didn't warm to these big Hollywood films is because they are representative of a growing trend in contemporary filmmaking. I believe it is a Post-Heroic view, which is a conscious rejection by the filmmakers of the classic heroic archetype, as though society has now moved beyond such traditions. It's also a trend away from sentimentalism or emotion in the film's heroes, as though those concepts belong to the melodramas of the past. With films like Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and others, today's filmmakers seem to reject building the heroes in their stories through film techniques that have worked for decades, and have, instead, used a more clinical, even sterile approach to the portrayal of the hero. These are not mistakes. They are deliberate choices made by the filmmakers so as not to over-sentimentalize their films. The result of this trend are films that are visually or philosophically interesting, but don't touch our hearts. There is admiration, but not much love. Argo, which was far more traditional, was a crowd-pleaser (because it tried to be one), whereas Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty (which did not try to be crowd-pleasers) were ultimately not.
Storytelling in film has, for most of its history, revolved around the hero's journey, a technique described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and utilized by writers for millennia. But in order to understand heroes, we need to know something about them, and most importantly, we need to know their motivations, and be in sympathy with them. If we agree with the motivations of the hero, we will agree with their struggle and have our own emotional investment in it. Films like Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master and others have heroes, yet they are mysterious to us. We follow their actions, but we don't really know who they are or why they do the things they do.
For all of our historical knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, the movie bearing his name didn't really tell us much about the man. Lincoln was more about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment than it was about the title character. As a result, we understand the political reasons why Lincoln wanted to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery because, early on, he explained them to us in almost excruciating detail. But why was he opposed to slavery in the first place? Other than his interaction, in a rather contrived early scene, with young black soldiers who lectured him about equal pay for equal work, the movie gave us no clue as to his motivations. Why was he motivated to take the personally risky position against slavery that would ultimately cost him his life? Since the writer and director chose to start the film more than two years after Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, we aren't allowed to understand his reasons or his motivations for abolishing slavery in the first place, other than in the abstract. Slavery is bad. Sure, we all understand that. But opposing it in 1863 or 1865 was a lot different from opposing slavery today.
Likewise, the motivations of Maya, the hero in Zero Dark Thirty, are equally mysterious to us. We don't know much about Maya other than that she has a single-minded focus on Osama bin Laden. We know nothing about her personal life, other than that she seems to have none. We don't even know her last name. She is a cipher. We watch her do things, but we don't connect with her. When she breaks down in tears at the end of the movie, we really don't understand why. Is it because she has finally accomplished her mission? Is it because of the changes she has had to go through in order to accomplish that mission? Or is it simply because she no longer has a job? Who knows? The filmmakers decided not to tell us. She's post-heroic.
In contrast, Argo is a much more old-fashioned movie (and I mean that in a good way) in establishing the motivations of its hero. Tony Mendez is presented to us as a flawed character seeking redemption in his life. He is first shown to us waking up in bed, fully clothed, beer cans and takeout food containers scattered around his room -- obviously, he's not yet living the perfect life (and yes, I know this intro is a bit cliche, but it does serve its purpose). We see that he is separated from his wife and son, and, through his phone conversation with his son, we see that he is trying to stay connected. We understand the stakes of his potential mission because the film takes the time to set the scene by showing the conflicts in Tehran and the brutality of the rioting mobs as they took over the US Embassy. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty gave us 911 phone conversations played out over a black screen. In Argo, we understand the life and death stakes that the Tehran hostages are under, because the film showed us scenes in which they are directly threatened and have to hide in a crawlspace. This all serves to help us understand the motivation of the hero as well as the perils he faces.
We further get to know Tony Mendez as he shows us his sharp mind when he is taken to the briefing room and logically dissects the various plans the other officials have come up with to free the hostages. And we feel his frustration as he reveals that has no better plan. So we understand Tony Mendez in a way in which we don't understand Abe Lincoln, or Maya. And when Tony Mendez takes a stand, and comes up with an audacious plan to free the hostages, we see the professional risk he is taking. And we also understand his personal stakes where, after his plan is approved, his boss says to him "Don't f**k up. The whole world is watching you. They just don't know it."
In contrast, Abraham Lincoln is portrayed in an unsentimental manner. It's as if the filmmakers decided that, Lincoln is so well known and loved, that the audience doesn't need to be given a rooting interest in the character. It assumes that our love for Lincoln is already there, so why the need to develop that "heroic moment" early on that would give the audience some identification with Abe, the man. We do see him in quiet moments with his family. These are great for establishing his humanity, but they don't get at the reasons for his heroism in taking on slavery.
Even more mysterious, Maya is presented to us with virtually no personality other than her single-minded focus on bin Laden. We understand, that Maya is essentially a composite character. But we doubt than any of those real people on whom she is based had such a blank slate for a life.
The endings of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are equally instructive. In reality, the airport scene in Argo, in which our hostages are nearly prevented from boarding the plane, and the subsequent chase scene with police cars following the plane down the runway didn't, in fact, happen. In reality, the hostages boarded the plane without incident and took off for Switzerland. But portraying the event in that way on film wouldn't be terribly exciting from a dramatic standpoint. So the filmmakers played (a bit) with the facts, but not, in fact, with the danger of the actual event. in short, they gave it more juice than it did in reality, to make it more exciting dramatically.
In Zero Dark Thirty, we saw the exact opposite. The landing of SEAL Team Six and the killing of bin Laden were depicted with journalistic realism, but without much emotion. Clinical. Non-emotional. Post-heroic.
What's really interesting is that all three of these films are historical fiction: fictionalized accounts of real events. All of these filmmakers are smart people who made deliberate choices about how to introduce and build their characters. Two of the three filmmakers opted not to build up the heroism of their film's hero, as if it wasn't really needed, or, perhaps they just didn't want to go that way. Lincoln and Maya are post-heroic figures, whereas Tony Mendez is created in a more traditional heroic mold, and in my view, this explains the success of Argo compared to the other two.
In the end, creating a hero, and getting an audience behind that hero is all about motivation. We need to understand the hero and understand their motivations, and agree with them, in order to feel something emotionally for the character, and for the movie. If we don't, then we don't. The filmmakers of Argo knew that they were doing more than telling a bit of history, they were portraying the actions of an American hero, not a post-heroic American. Successful filmmaking is, after all, ultimately about pleasing a crowd. And if the crowd doesn't get behind the hero, the movie doesn't move them. That's why Argo took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the other two didn't.
P.S. Another fan favorite with equally well-crafted heroic characters (as in Argo), is also a smaller film, Silver Linings Playbook, about two disfunctional individuals trying to find their way in the world. It's a different film, but its two heroes were created (as in Argo) in ways that we understand and can sympathize with. And it's probably the biggest reason why Jennifer Lawrence took home the Oscar, and Jessica Chastain didn't. 02.26.13