Shades Of Words


Argo and Zero Dark Thirty: Skewed Narratives

Note: Contextually this review is probably outdated, and it has been lying on my laptop for ages. But I just got time to post it – so here it is.

Both these movies were nominated by the Oscar committee, which largely being American explains the bias towards the “save the world” complex inherent to American psyche. In terms of the pure craft of movie making, both these movies are good, but are they great enough to warrant Oscar nominations?

Let’s take a look at Argo. As I was at Warner Bros, I had the chance to get a preview of the movie before the premiere so was shielded from all the award hype surrounding the movie as soon as it was released. I also had no context about the Iran situation; even then I found the 10 second intro cringe worthy. Did we really need a crash course in Iranian history which can never do justice to the complexities of the political scene. It’s over simplification only adds to the confusion and stereotype of the western world’s perception of “middle eastern” world. A clever movie would have set the context without doing a voice over which seems like a cheap trick to evade narrative complexities.

For people who haven’t seen the movie, and I am guessing there won’t be many, Argo tells the story of the daring escape of the members of the US Embassy in Iran thanks to an audacious plan plotted by the CIA. The movie is homage Tony Mendez and his brave effort to save these people and in that it serves its purpose. He did his job and he did it well, and it was probably not his place to question why. If this was a fictional world and this was a fictional story, this movie made an excellent edge-of-the-seat thriller. Unfortunately it is not. It retells events that are about real people and when you retell a story the danger of misrepresentation and re-writing history is very large. For instance, the movie portrays with accuracy Iran’s anger with US, but does not adequately explain the cause of the hatred or how many years it had festered. It does however focus on footage of Burkha clad women totting guns, angry mobs trampling the American flag in an Islamic state. It reinforces the image that “Americans good and innocent, Arabs bad and violent”. It also neutralizes the role that the Canadian Embassy played in harboring the US citizens and in effect saving their lives. Of course, there is no denying the brilliancy of the trick that CIA pulled off while helping these people escape but it’s not possible to look at that incident within that micro context. Whether such tricks are often played by the CIA on unsuspecting less criminal governments of the world is another question for another day. Ignoring all the missteps in messaging, the direction is great thought it sometimes gives in to Hollywood ticket-selling clichés – for instance the Iranian Guards driving the jeep over the runway to stop an outgoing flight. Wouldn’t it be more logical to have the ATC stop the plane?

As I said earlier, if you were to ignore all these nagging elements that pop up in your brain, you are going to like the movie. But an Oscar? Really? For a story half told?

Zero Dark Thirty is somehow less offensive to me as a movie than Argo though it may have garnered more criticism. My first impressions were that this was more of grounds up approach to the events that transpired and led to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The movie opens up with the audio footage of 9/11. Now there has been a lot of debate around this 10 seconds of audio clip as to how it’s goal is to manipulate viewers into having the sympathetic reaction to the war on Afghanistan. I personally thought it was to set context of what led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden rather than evoke sympathy or rage.

I won’t delve into the story in detail except for saying it focuses on the life of the CIA Agent Maya (fictional representation of the real CIA agent who led the investigation) as she becomes single mindedly obsessed with the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Agent Maya is a bit of a newbie when she moves to Pakistan to become part of the Find-Osama team and we get a glimpse of her humane side as she feels repulsion for the methods employed by the CIA to get information from suspects. While in my opinion, the movie makes no stand on torture, it does portray that in this specific case torture has given results. It’s also interesting to know how Maya’s repulsion to torture is so short termed and how she accepts it as part of the CIA operating manual and goes with it.

I appreciate that a women is a doing a job popularly assumed to be a man’s domain, and just telling this version of the Obama hunt is enough exposure to the fact. There is this one really weird  scene, where Agent Maya is in a meeting with senior CIA officers proposing the strategy to capture Osama from his fortified house and one of them asks her “And who are you?” and she replies “I am the motherfucker who found him”. And everyone stares at her – either they are impressed by her or more likely, because a woman used a bad word. It takes back the feminist message several steps back – is it so unusual that a 21st century woman swears in front of men that it requires a movie scene? Or that even a woman of her intelligence and capability has to swear and become “one of the men” to be taken seriously? Maybe I misread the whole scene, but it was really jarring to my mind.

I also in general found annoying was CIA’s sense of righteousness in its pursuit of Taliban and how soon it turns into an adrenalin-jacking man-hunt.

Apart from those few things the movie was a better experience than Argo for me as it felt less propagandistic

Some thought provoking articles on the same subject



The Thirteenth Tale

Image Courtesy GoodReads

Recommended by a friend and my love for gothic novels,  made me pick up the copy of “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfiled. I generally approach contemporary writers for some trepidation – much like Margaret Lea, the narrator of our book – but from the very first chapter I was impressed.

The book’s opening sentence “It was November” is the perfect starting for a dark, ghost story. For this is what it is; a ghost story of sorts. Maybe not of supernatural beings, but haunted memories of family secrets, lies, pain and deaths.

Margaret Lea is a young recluse and a biographer, who lives above her father’s bookshop in Yorkshire.  That she prefers books over people, is understandable and I think quite sensible. The story starts with an intriguing letter Margaret receives from Ms. Vida Winter, a famous novelist of her time requesting Margaret to be her biographer.  Ms. Winter is most known for her collection of short stories “Thirteen tales of Change and Desperation”; where famously there is no Thirteenth Tale. It has been desire of the general populace to always know what that untold story is.

Now no one really knows about Ms. Winter’s life or her origins. Any journalist who has asked the relevant questions has been given a different answer every time. So why does she want this little known biographer to tell her story? Will she finally tell the truth about herself? Will she disclose her thirteenth tale?

It’s with these questions that Margaret goes to visit Ms. Winter.   After an unusual interview, Margaret agrees to write the biography of Ms. Winter. It is at this point the where the story within the story takes hold and we travel back to Ms. Winter’s childhood in Angelfield

The writing is rich, fluid and has an ominous undertone which makes it deliciously gothic. There are bits and pieces which are truly chilling and grotesque; the incestuous relationship between siblings, the “something not right” with the children, the cruel governess, the rumoured ghost of Angelfield, the unnoticed murder. As you go deeper the horrors of Angelfield are truly revolting, but what keeps you hooked is the sense that there is still a larger horror to be unraveled.

Margaret is consumed by the story, as she fights her own demons. The book heavily focuses on the relationship of the “twins” – the ones in Angelfield and the Margaret’s own dead twin. Personally I found Margaret’s grieving for a twin that she never knew a little tedious and overtly sentimental. These were the only parts of the book that I wish were gone.

However, “The Thirteenth Tale”, is complex plot driven novel written extremely well. There are evident homage to “The Turn of the Screw”, “Jane Eyre” and “Lady Audley’s Secret” which at times are too obvious but still interesting anyone who loves this genre.