These two films each take an unflinching look at the damage wrought when countries have change imposed upon them, but leaven the tone with helpings of ridiculousness.
Midnight’s Children (in a nicely streamlined screenplay by the novel’s author Salman Rushdie) sticks with the magic realism of the novel, such as when India is actually plunged into a permanent midnight during Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency in the mid 70s, known as the country’s “darkest hour.”
The novel’s sense of the absurd is woven throughout the film, mirroring the the attempts of the narrator, Saleem Sinai, to create a coherent narrative out of all the strange things that have happened to him and to the newly independent India, since both were born on 15th August 1947.
Argo, by contrast, treats an absurd solution to a serious situation with gravity.
In the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all but six of the Iranian American Embassy employees are held hostage in the building. The six (portrayed above) find shelter at the Canadian ambassador’s house, but the revolutionaries are on the hunt for them. So CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan:
1) Pretend to be making a sci-fi flick
2) Tell the Iranian authorities that the six are part of the [Canadian] crew
3) Leave by jet plane
Amazingly, this is a true story.
Both films show in detail – using some file footage – the violence of the Iranian protests, and of the clash between India and the two wings of Pakistan that were created around it. Argo opens with a well-judged, story-board primer on the background to the Iranian Revolution, while Midnight’s Children carries through the the 20th century, from 1917 to 1980, the year of the novel’s publication.
Still, they would’ve been a bit dry without a sprinkling of entertainment. The premise of the rescue mission in Argo begs for our mockery, as the quiet, contained Mendez leaves his CIA comfort zone and heads to Hollywood to find accomplices for his fake film. He seems more at ease when relating the plan to the six in Iran; he’s never failed in a rescue mission yet, and clearly works best under pressure. In fact, the first time Affleck allows his character a half-smile, well, let’s say that the film’s more than half over.
Both films successfully build tension, although Argo‘s linear progression arguably sustains it more effectively. Midnight’s Children is all about making its narrator into a symbol of India’s fortunes, so absurdities like Saleem falling into a years’-long coma, then waking and immediately being sent to fight in Bangladesh can be read in two ways: as evidence of his unreliability as a narrator, and as an allegory for an oddlyquiet period in the country’s history, the calm before the storm.
Argo ratchets up the tension all the way to the end, so unless you lived through the 70s or crammed on Wikipedia beforehand, you remain unable to breathe for quite a while. Midnight’s Children takes more of a satirical, Dickensian swipe at revolution, at politics and at just what happens when a country somewhere in the west decides to change another one tucked safely over there in the east.