When I saw “Argo” a few months ago, I was struck by a line at the beginning. It’s 1979, and there’s a mob outside the fences of the US Embassy in Teheran. They’re shouting at the building, and rattling the gates. They won’t hold for long. Inside, the head of the US Marine detachment tells his troops, “If you shoot anyone out there, everyone in this embassy will die.”
What a refreshingly adult attitude towards violence in a movie! He’s obviously right, yet in a typical action movie they would blast their way out, and then cling from dangling helicopter ladders firing machine guns one-handedly as their enemies rage below. Instead, they throw tear gas grenades, and barricade the doors, and manage to hold off the mob long enough to destroy the most incriminating documents. Most of the personnel are captured, but six are freed due to the courage of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and the ingenuity of CIA agent Tony Mendez. The rest are freed due to the patience and determination of Jimmy Carter. Everyone makes it out alive.
In his acceptance speech last night for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, Argo’s writer Chris Terrio said:
And I want to dedicate this to people all over the world who use creativity and intelligence to solve problems non-violently.
No wonder it won Best Picture! Hollywood people know full well how the violent tropes of movies can manifest in the real world. They have to stick in one-handed machine gun firing to satisfy the ids of the audience, but it must sicken them. They stoutly deny that Columbine, and Aurora, and Newtown or any of the now-weekly mass killings have anything to do with what gets portrayed in every single action movie, but inside they have to be worried.
I can only think of one other movie that took this route, “Hotel Rwanda”. There too one wily man manages to save hundreds in the midst of a nightmarish civil war. The hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina secretes all sorts of refugees in every corner of his hotel, while continuing to smile at the murderous maniacs outside, and bribing them with whiskey. When that runs out, he threatens them with war crimes tribunals, and so escapes with all his people in a UN convoy.
These are both true stories (at least within the terms of dramatic license), and I wonder if that helped get them made. They seem so goody-goody compared to the morality of most movie stories, and yet they happened. People might scoff at such behavior from a fictional character. It might make audiences uncomfortable to see people behaving so well, and so much better than they do. It’s easier to feel superior to the crude John McClane in Die Hard, or the weirdly-accented Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was also nice to see Argo beat the ethically challenged “Zero Dark Thirty”, although it was said to be a more gripping movie. I haven’t seen it, but I’m sympathetic to Matt Taibbi’s claim that it was Bin Laden’s final victory over America. Killing everyone in the compound, and then sneaking his body away in the night are not the actions of a strong and self-confident country. Maybe Hollywood is also sick of the brutal and criminal side of the US that was portrayed in that movie and in most of their product. Maybe they want a country that prides itself on being fast and funny instead of having the biggest guns and the most vicious commandos.