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The Middle East, Box Office, and Oscars: Has Argo Cracked the Code?

Maybe you've heard, but the United States has had some pretty complex relationships with several nations in the Middle East. This isn't a recent development either, though 9/11 ratcheted up tensions to a completely new level. Argo, Ben Affleck's latest film and arguably the first major Oscar contender of the year, takes us back to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. 

The film is great (our review). Affleck captures the chaotic dynamic of the region with a brilliant extended first act. The American flag is burned. Its embassy workers are blindfolded and bound by furious Iranian citizens. It's actually tough to watch, considering the recent attack on the American consulate in Libya.

When it comes to the movies, however, the subject matter isn't particularly new. Yes, Argo is definitely the highest-profile film to tackle this particular crisis, but over the past decade especially, directors seem eager to find meaning in the chaos that currently is the Middle East.

Rarely has that search for meaning been a recipe for success, however. That's what makes Argo's money-making opening weekend and Oscar potential so surprising. The film is definitely more than just another Middle East movie — there's a classic Hollywood movie-making angle, as well — but recent movie history is littered with films, including more than a few box-office and critical bombs, whose directors probably thought they were making an Argo.

Perhaps the first big Hollywood effort to tackle the Middle East post-9/11 was Syriana, directed by Stephen Gaghan. Better known as the film that won George Clooney his Oscar, it's a big intersecting ensemble piece that talks mostly about the politics of oil, but also a great deal about a Saudi prince who is genuinely interested in reform and, as a result, becomes an equal source of great praise and fervent scorn. 

It's interesting that it took four years to really go there. 2004, of course, brought us George W. Bush's re-election (and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which really is a different beast altogether). Were filmmakers still trying to process the drastic ways in which the world had changed? Don't forget, Middle East extremism wasn't anything new; It had just hit home in a way we never thought possible, ways we prayed never could be possible.

Or were filmmakers waiting to see how America's policy toward the Middle East might change under a John Kerry administration? Regardless, Syriana felt a lot less inherently American than some of the other similar films we'd be saddled with over the next few years. (It was also a financial failure and a minor disappointment when it came to Oscars). With ol' cowboy Bush here to stay, however, the Middle East would definitely have its shot at a big prize … right?

2005 also brought us a few films that, while set in the past, dealt with contemporary Middle East issues in noteworthy ways. Steven Spielberg's Munich is the first. The film about the massacre of 11 Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Games talks a lot about the dangers inherent in sniffing and snuffing out those who commit acts of terror (a dead terrorist might be replaced to three men who're all worse, Spielberg argues). Like Syriana, the film was nominated for a few Oscars (Picture, Director, etc.), but it underperformed financially and was seen by many as underwhelming.

Then, there's Jarhead—a brutal movie about the 1991 Gulf War. Despite the presence of director Sam Mendes and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, it tanked. Another supposed prestige picture, another financial and awards disappointment.

2006 was a big year for this new subgenre of films because not only did we get the first film to deal directly with the 9/11 attacks, we also got the second. United 93 earned plenty of year's best citations, but it made just $31 million. Hey, that's understandable; Paul Greengrass' film didn't have any stars. Surely Oliver Stone's World Trade Center—starring Nic Cage, Maria Bello, and Maggie Gyllenhaal—would fare better. Well, it did earn $70 million, but on a budget of $65, and neither film — despite good reviews — became major Oscar players.

What about 2007? It saw an explosion of Middle East-set, terrorism-themed films. The one with the highest profile was Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War. Like Munich and Jarhead, it was set in the past (the 1980s, to be precise). Nichols, of course, directed films like The Graduate, Closer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For this film, he assembled a cast of Oscar royalty inJulia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His screenwriter was Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame (and later Oscar winner for The Social Network).

The film examined an American congressman's effort to funnel money and weapons to Afghan freedom fighters who were, at the time, warring with the big, bad U.S.S.R. These freedom fighters, of course, became the Taliban, which meant the parables to today's geopolitical climate were impossible to miss. How in the world could this film not strike gold?

Well it didn't; The film came and went. It's actually a very good one and it came out right in the thick of the Oscar/holiday movie season. The only plausible reason for its failure ($66 million gross on a $75 million budget and only one Oscar nomination) is the subject matter. By late 2007, America's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was feeling quite long in the tooth. Morale was low, and it seems fair that the general public didn't much want to see a film that tells us how intractable this conflict really is.

And so it went. Rendition (with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal) performed abysmally, as did Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs (starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep). A Mighty Heart was supposed to be a serious Best Actress vehicle for Angelina Jolie, as it recounted the story of an American journalist slain in Pakistan. It wasn't.

The list goes on and on from Brothers to Fair Game, from Body of Lies to Green Zone. Big names and talented filmmakers litter the credit sequences of these titles, yet they couldn't attract a crowd, nor did they do much for critics and awards groups. 

The big exception to this rule came in 2009 with The Hurt Locker. While the film, like all the others outlined here, was generally regarded as a financial failure, it won Best Picture and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, became the first female to take home her profession's top accolade. 

It'll be very curious to see if she can turn critical acclaim and the high profile she earned with an Oscar win into box office dollars with Zero Dark Thirty about the team that killed Osama Bin Laden. If she can, it might mean 2012 is the year Hollywood finally broke its Middle East curse. After all, Argo has been performing very well over its first week, earning just under $20 million its first weekend and an impressive $16.6 million this weekend. Word of mouth rarely does better than that. A deep run into Oscar season could mean this film could surpass the $100 million, a feat that — based on all the evidence above — would have seemed unfathomable a few weeks ago.

So what's changed? Have we as a nation become so desensitized to our foreign affairs that Hollywood fiction isn't hitting so close to home anymore? Maybe the death of Bin Laden has struck a chord of finality that filmmakers are finally able to capitalize on? Or maybe this is just a rambling over-analysis, and Affleck's film is just the best-made movie of the bunch?

One could look at the Vietnam War—one of America's darkest hours—as a point of comparison. That conflict ended in 1975. Though the first major motion picture about it came out in 1968 (the John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets), the first to truly register with the public came a decade later in the form of Coming Home and the 1978 Best Picture winner, The Deer Hunter. Time and space meant bigger financial hits, as the conflict's most profitable films include Platoon (1986), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), and Forrest Gump (1994). 

So in 2024, will we start seeing big Hollywood blockbusters focusing on the "War on Terror?" Probably not. Film culture has changed infinitely since the 1980s. That said, you're already seeing tentpole pictures like Iron Man touch on these issues ever so briefly.

In the end, does any of this change Argo's Oscar chances? No. It was a solid bet before, it's a solid bet now. Will Argo make major studios more willing to bankroll these kinds of projects? Perhaps, and wouldn't that be nice. The $64,000 question (or maybe "$100-million question" would be more appropriate) must be "Is Argo an anomaly?" Zero Dark Thirty could say a lot, as will next year's Lone Survivor, a Peter Berg film starting Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch, which one must assume will be the sub-genre's first truly action-oriented picture. 

Whatever the case, such a heated and emotional time in history will always be fodder for Hollywood. There will be good films like Argo, there will be bad films like Act of Valor. There will be a lot of films most of us — even critics — are indifferent toward because no matter how heavy the subject matter is, a filmmaker needs certain things for his or her film to succeed: quality storytelling, compelling characters, strong visuals, an eye for detail, etc.

Our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has provided directors ample opportunity to put those pieces together. It just seems Ben Affleck (Ben freaking Affleck!!!) is the first to do so in an audience-pleasing way. How 'bout them apples?


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