Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Cinema File #3: "Argo" Review

When I first heard about the plot of Argo, before I saw any promotion or had a clear idea what the tone was going to be, the first movie that popped into my head was the 1997 film Wag The Dog. The intersection between Hollywood-style bullshit artistry, politics, and international espionage seems like natural fodder for great dramatic storytelling, and yet both Levinson's film and the only other film I can think of off the top of my head with this theme, The Last Shot, both reflexively use it for comedy. Though there are many very funny moments in Argo, it is not a comedy, and I think that its gripping true to life take on this same theme has made it, at least for me, probably the most thought provoking film I've seen all year. The story follows a CIA extractor played by Ben Affleck, an expert in getting people out of bad situations in foreign countries, who concocts an insane plan to invent a fake movie as cover to rescue six American diplomats stranded in Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The first thing I notice as the prologue sets everything up, beyond just how well it does so in a brief span of time, is how it prepares the audience for a very uncompromising and brutally honest portrayal of each side and position of the conflict being presented. The first moments of the film feature narration that (accurately) explains that much of the turmoil of this time was the result of America's meddling in the affairs of other nations where it had no business being, engineering coups to install leaders more in keeping with our interests. This is then counterbalanced with the sinister theocratic rule of the Ayatollah, essentially a monster of our own making, attempting to re-shape reality through propaganda and intimidation.

Here's where I go back to Wag The Dog and this idea of governments not just using fiction, but attempting to impose whole fictional realities to better suit their aims. The central concept of the fake movie is a metaphor for the layers of deception underpinning the entire situation. It's a game that everyone has been playing all this time, perhaps without always realizing it. Lies, covers, and false realities, here in the film used for good, but as also presented in the film, the cause of all the problems in the first place. We see average Americans sound off their anger at the situation, ignorant of their own country's complicity, and as they watch their best laid plans blow up in their faces and do their best to do damage control and clean up their mess, the government officials involved are matter of fact and unapologetic about what they do and how they do it. They speak of the Shah, basically painted in the film as America's now exiled puppet dictator of Iran, as "their bastard," callously ignoring the harm they've done. The Iranian militants are a dark, violent mirror reflection of this, accomplishing with force what America does with stealth and subterfuge. The CIA operatives speak derisively of science fiction, when what is left unstated is that creating science fiction is basically their job already, and doing it in the context of a fake sci-fi movie is just an extra layer of irony they have no capacity to be aware of. This could easily have been a jingoistic fairy tale with clearly aligned good guys and bad guys to rally a patriotic American viewing audience, but it never succumbs to that temptation once, and instead refreshingly leaves you by the end of the prologue with no side to take, feeling as lost as the main characters in need of rescue. I can't help but be reminded of another film, which I might have loathed as much as I loved this one, Charlie Wilson's War, and how it delighted in glorifying exactly this kind of thoughtless and ultimately insidious clandestine intervention that this film presents honestly without judgement one way or the other.

I have a feeling you'll be hearing some version of "it is a testament to Ben Affleck's talent as a director" several times in this review, but I'll try to stop short just for the sake of not repeating myself. I can't begin to describe how well put together this movie is. When I reviewed Branded, I noted how frustrating it was to see so many disparate elements never coming together, when some combination of many of them could have made that movie great instead of mediocre. Argo is the polar opposite. Here, you basically have three good movies, a political procedural, a movie industry satire, and a tense espionage thriller, seamlessly blended together to make one great movie. If anything, it does this too well. As we shifted from one to the next, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted to stay behind and watch the entire movie played out from one perspective, only to see it change to the next, equally exciting one. Hell, there's even a character who only shows up for a three minute scene to give Affleck's character some fake passports, and when he walks off, I feel like he just popped in from some interesting story of his own that I wanna see next. And maybe I'm just crazy, but there are more than a few scenes that I thought almost played out like something straight out of a zombie movie. The riot in the beginning, and then a few scenes later in the van and in the Bazarr, play up the tention using scenarios that paint the danger surrounding them as almost otherworldly. The basic plot of the movie seems like such a simple concept, so much so that I could easily encapsulate it in one sentence above, but you have to see it to understand just how complicated the execution is and how deftly it's pulled off. And as much as I loved the moral complexities set up by the film, it ends on such a rapturously hopeful note that leaves you rooting for everything good and decent even as you just spent almost two hours steeped in how sleazy and scary the world can be. In short, this was a mighty undertaking that had so much potential for failure, but instead it pans out almost perfectly.

I'll get to the stuff I didn't like in a moment, but first, I wanted to mention the setting, and specifically the time in which the movie is set. So many movies set in the past, and especially those that try to set their films in the 1970's, tend to be very flippant in how closely they hue to the aesthetic of the time they are trying to portray. Most stop at wacky facial hair and slang. Argo employs so many little touches that make the movie feel not only like a movie set in the 70's, but practically like a movie made in the 70's. The chain smoking, leaving ash trays filled to the brim with cigarette butts in a government office, the ratty old technology that forces raided diplomats to burn reams of paper documents in beaten down furnaces. And then there's the Hollywood sign. It's only seen for one shot, but when it is, it is demolished, shown in its pre-renovated state. At first you have to think its brilliant, because any other director would have just presented the sign as it stands today, either forgetting that detail or ignoring it so as not to confuse anyone who doesn't know the history. But a little research shows that this is inaccurate. The restoration of the sign actually occurred almost exactly one year prior to the events of the film. So why leave it in? I can't imagine it's a mistake given how nearly flawless the rest of the film is, at least in its imagery. This one shot to me symbolizes the entire film, at least as it relates to this idea of false realities and lies underpinning our world, and I have to assume it is deliberate given the historical fudging of the details needed to keep it in. The crumbling sign is the embodiment of the contradiction of Hollywood specifically and America generally, it is the place we are most proud of and most ashamed of, the place where everyone wants to be and the place everyone loves to hate, the producer of our last great export and the one thing the rest of the world still loves us for, and the producer of all the decadence and filth that makes us the Great Satan. And it's a lie, a bit of meta-revisionist history that circles back again on the main theme of the movie, that lies run the world. This one image sells the entire movie for me, and if movie ads were more honest, it would be on the poster.

Now for the bad stuff. With a few exceptions, I can't exactly say the acting was bad at all, but there are some things that left me wanting afterwards. Bryan Cranston is great, and it's good to seem him actually have something to do after his talents were so profoundly wasted earlier this year in Total Recall, and Goodman and Arkin as good as always. It always amazes me how easily and seemingly effortlessly John Goodman can imbue any role with charm and sympathy, whether he's in a jovial part like this or a raving serial killer as in Barton Fink or Fallen. Everyone else? The lost diplomats could have been fleshed out a lot more than they are here. We're introduced to them through a CIA briefing that almost sounds like something out of a bad 80's action movie, where the commando is given the dossiers on his team. I even think one of them is described as "a bit of an oddball." When we finally start to get to know them, we don't really get much by way of distinction or development, save for the one lone dissenter of the group who doesn't want to go along with the plan at first and at least gets to be a dick. I found myself having to distinguish them by facial hair and other physical characteristics, because they didn't have much individual personality, which seems to stand out more because of how so many side characters are formed and presented so well. By contrast, Affleck's protagonist has a lot of character bits thrown in, a troubled family, a distant relationship with his wife and son, and so forth, but he's so wooden, I find myself struggling to care about him amid all the other more interesting things the film throws out for me to want to focus on. I find myself liking Affleck less and less as an actor as I appreciate him more and more as a director. I've always defended him, even when his career was to many a punch line. Hell, I even liked Daredevil, or at least his portrayal of Matt Murdock, which I think people unfairly make the scapegoat for that movie's other flaws. I'm not saying he needs to be the bombastic Bostonite from Good Will Hunting or anything, but a little more emotion than we got would have been nice.

Also, in some sense this movie falls into the same trap as another movie I saw and enjoyed this past year, Contagion. This is going to sound like an unfair criticism, and it probably is, but at the end of the day, I like drama in my drama. We always snootily insist that what we really want is realism, rather than the schmaltzy or over-dramatic excesses of Hollywood movies, but sometimes we get what we claim we want, and we are shown for the shallow lying bastards that we are. Take Contagion, a film that tries very hard to present a gritty, uncompromising take on the spread of a disease, vs. a film like Outbreak, which does the same, but with witty dialogue and pathos. Contagion is the kind of movie we say we want to see, but Outbreak is the movie we watch if given the choice. Argo suffers from this to a certain extent, with long periods of characters just waiting for things to happen, as would actually be the case in crisis situations like this. It makes up for it in the end with a legitimately suspenseful mad dash through the airport, but then almost goes too far in the other direction, making the Iranians, who came off as so menacing throughout the movie, appear almost cartoonishly stupid. Also, I could be wrong, but I think there's a technical inaccuracy in this end scene, which I wouldn't bring up except that it is a fairly crucial plot point. Without giving too much away, the scene relies on the ability of a circa 1970's computer receiving information from another computer in America instantly, between the time it takes to check a file a first and second time. I know this is easy now, but was this possible back then? I'm not sure, but I have to take their word for it at this point. And I know this is just a nitpick, but I could have done without the text crawl at the end explaining what happened to everyone after the movie. I get that this is a staple of movies based on true stories, but its a pet peeve of mine that always annoys me. Did I need to sit longer and read in my movie just to find out that Affleck's character and the movie producer guy remained friends? Of course these are all small things, and none of them take away from what is, on the whole, a wonderful movie going experience.

Originally I had this idea to start adding a new thing at the end of all my reviews, where I would try to condense my opinion down to one really hacky sentence full of puns, sort of a dig at the Gene Shalet style critic. The idea would be that it would always be needlessly filthy and abrasive, but the problem is, this movie already beat me to the punch, actually using the best line I could use in the movie. So I guess, if you don't want to see this movie by now...

Argo Fuck Yourself!
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