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Argo

After some frustratingly slow weekends in the multiplexes, I’m pleased to see that things are starting to pick up in a big way. Today saw the release of a horror film that looks legitimately freaky, a crude violent comedy with a fantastic ensemble cast, and a film that started picking up awards buzz before it was even released.

The latter film is partly of note because it was directed by Ben Affleck. His previous two efforts were such critical darlings that it’s easy to forget Affleck’s status as a pop culture punchline only a few years ago. That he managed to climb so high after falling so low is a rare and impressive feat in itself. That he managed it in such a short span of time is nothing less than astonishing.

For the record, I regret to say that I can’t personally speak for the quality of Gone Baby Gone. I’ve only seen The Town, which easily could have and should have been a much better film. Still, I’ll admit that Affleck’s sophomore effort was a very good movie that showed a great deal of potential for Affleck as a filmmaker.

Put simply, I was on the fence about Affleck’s directorial career, in spite of all the hype. But then Argo converted me.

To be fair, Argo does stumble a bit at first. The film opens with a bit of exposition about Iranian politics in the 1970s, such that we can get a decent idea of how the Iranian Revolution came about. The voice-overs are great, the use of pictures and footage is good, and the prologue perfectly sets the dreadful and uncertain mood this film needs. The problem? It’s structured as a sequence of storyboards in motion.

I get what the filmmakers were trying to do with this storyboard introduction. They wanted to introduce the “movie” motif early on, sowing the seeds for when film production plays a more active role in the story. But there had to be a better way. As it is, the “storyboard” design theme is very elegantly crafted, but it still comes off as forced. It’s cute, I grant you, but I somehow doubt that “cute” is what the filmmakers were going for.

Anyway, that was really just a nitpick. It wasn’t nearly bad enough to make me walk out of the film right there. Which is good, because the rest of the film is amazing.

Immediately after the prologue, the film throws us right into the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy. And it’s wonderfully presented. The movie shows us protesters as far as the eye can see, all of them out for American blood. The movie shows us the calm before the storm, as those inside the embassy go about their day in anxiety. But then the protesters find their way in and it really does feel like all hell broke loose.

The film makes it abundantly clear that Iran is a very dangerous place. There’s a man being hung from a construction crane and being left as an example. There’s another man dragged out and shot in plain sight. The whole country is crawling with armed guards, ready to detain and kill anyone who looks even remotely American. And it’s not just the government, either: There are irate revolutionaries everywhere, all of them just looking for an excuse to start a bloodbath.

Yes, the Iranians are depicted as a giant angry mob, though Americans aren’t exactly let off the hook either. The Iran hostage crisis brought out a great xenophobic response, and the film is very clear about showing it. We see a Vietnam veteran eager to take up arms again. We see a high school student who gleefully talks about shooting Iranians. We see an innocent Iranian man beaten half to death in the street, right here in the States. Moreover, all of these scenes appear to have been taken from actual news footage, which makes it all the more shocking.

The film raises another point as well: The revolution deposed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whom the film contends was a corrupt and opulent leader who treated himself to extravagance while Iranians starved. Eventually, the former Shah went to the States for gallstone surgery, and President Carter granted him political asylum for the duration. Naturally, the Iranians want Reza back in Iran and executed, so they acquire some hostages for leverage.

This leads to the question of why we didn’t just give the revolutionaries what they wanted. Why were we protecting this awful excuse for a human being when there were over 50 American lives at risk? The movie is good enough to raise this question, and it offers a multitude of answers as well: Because we helped put the Shah in power to begin with, because he’s dying in chemotherapy anyway, because America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, and so on.

The point is that the stakes in this movie are very real. The film makes it abundantly clear that war is a very real possibility, that lives are very much at risk, and both countries are far too self-righteous to back down. Put simply, this movie’s impressive skill with laying on tension is easily its greatest strength.

This tension applies not only to the larger geopolitical story, but to the smaller extraction attempt as well. There are six embassy employees who went unaccounted for when the Iranians burst in, and the noose keeps tightening around them through the whole running time. American support for them grows increasingly hopeless, the Iranians grow hot on their trail, the “Houseguests” themselves grow paranoid and restless, and so on. It also helps that the movie puts a great deal of time and effort into establishing these refugees as characters, such that it’s easy to cheer them on. What helps even more is that there are two married couples among the Houseguests, and the film takes full advantage of those emotional connections.

That said, it bears remembering that the plan to get them out is to pose as a film crew for a fake sci-fi B-movie. The plan sounds absolutely ludicrous, and the film is smart enough to not shy away from that. In fact, the film fully embraces the absurdity of it, which leads to some legitimately funny lines. Additionally, the process of making a fake movie leads to a lot of great Hollywood satire. The barbs against showbiz sound even better coming from John Goodman and Alan Arkin, each of whom is a seasoned Hollywood veteran with perfect comedic timing and an IMDB page well over 100 credits deep. These guys know what they’re talking about out of character, and that experience comes through in their performances.

Even so, the comedy in this film always has a very black edge to it. The film never lets us forget, as Ben Affleck’s character so eloquently puts it, that this cover is the only thing between these characters and a gun to their heads. This outrageous idea was seriously the best that anyone could come up with, and it has to appear totally authentic or the Iranians will never buy it. The CIA, the Canadian government, the Hollywood office, and the mock film crew all have to work together in total cooperation or the whole thing falls apart. The cover identities have to be rock-solid and perfectly memorized or the whole thing falls apart. The movie has to genuinely look like a huge Hollywood production or the whole thing falls apart. Our protagonists are dead and the U.S.A. is a global laughingstock, all from one little slip in the cover.

Yet with all of this going on, we can’t forget that there’s another layer to this film as well: A love of cinema. In ways both subtle and overt, the film works beautifully as a tribute to the unifying power of movies and stories. There are any number of examples in this film to choose from, but my personal favorite comes at the climax. In that scene, there is one absolutely brilliant moment when the story of the Houseguests’ cover identities and the story of the fake movie come together in such a way that it ultimately saves the day. It’s a storyteller who saves everyone’s lives when all is said and done, and it’s simply wonderful how that turn of events is executed.

All of this to say that the film masterfully balances comedy and tension in a very novel way. A great deal of that is of course due to Affleck’s direction, but the sterling cast deserves a lot of credit as well. Not only does Affleck himself deliver an outstanding performance in the central role, but he surrounded himself with such powerhouse talents as Bryan Cranston and Kyle Chandler, as well as the aforementioned Goodman and Arkin. The cast is also packed with such legendary character actors as Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Titus Welliver, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Zeljko Ivanek… the list goes on and on. As for the Houseguests themselves, Affleck had the good sense to cast them with wonderfully talented actors who haven’t yet developed huge IMDB pages or recognizable public personas. This makes it all the more easy to believe that they aren’t heroes or spies, but ordinary people dealing with terrible circumstances.

Basically put, it’s obvious that Affleck didn’t cast actors based on how big their fanbase is, but based on how suited they were for their roles. Why is that so hard?!

All of this praise aside, the film is not without its nitpicks. For example, as much as I applaud the film for how it relentlessly builds up tension and effectively balances so many disparate elements, the movie does have an Achilles heel. I’m referring to the family life of Affleck’s character, which sticks out like a sore thumb in this picture. Though this subplot is only addressed in a few brief moments, it often appears to be little more than a distraction. There’s one particularly worthless scene in which Affleck and Arkin discuss their characters’ families, and it completely ruins the momentum built up to that point.

There’s also the matter of artistic liberty. I don’t claim to have a great deal of knowledge about the real-life event, and I don’t know for sure precisely where the filmmakers changed the story to suit their needs. However, based on my own bullshit meter and experience with “true story” films, I can make a few educated guesses.

Most of the suspected changes are executed fairly well, with some amount of plausibility and creativity to help things along. That said, these moments are still so contrived that it’s easy to tell they were invented by the screenwriter. By far the most egregious case in point comes with the turning point into the third act. That move was so blatantly ripped off from the Big Book O’ Hollywood Cliches that it had to have been fictional. What’s more, it doesn’t even make sense from a storytelling standpoint. The move was obviously done in a shallow and predictable attempt at ramping up tension, but it seemed like the tension was all well and good by that point. After all, our protagonists are just about to enter an airport with security that would make the TSA green with envy. Isn’t that high-stakes enough?

Yet even with these nagging little nitpicks, I have no problem giving Argo a full recommendation. This is a superbly made film, with fantastic performances across the board and a superbly made period setting that literally spans the entire globe. It’s amazing how this film so creatively manages to blend comedy, action, and drama, all while building up tension at a remarkable pace. The film also works nicely as a cinematic love letter, which warms my film geek’s heart.

If Ben Affleck wasn’t an A-list director already, he certainly will be after this one. By all means, go see it.

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