Argo

Spoilers.

I often come out of cinema’s thinking “That movie was brilliant! I’ll never see anything that good for a long time!”

Then I think about the movie. Then I think some more. Then I talk about the movie with other people. Then I think some more.

Slowly, but surely, I look upon the film more critically. I notice plot holes, I remember bad acting I had previously ignored, recall more clearly moments I didn’t like. It’s one of the reasons I usually leave it a week before I review something, because it’s good to have time to process.

(I suppose there are some who would see I am allowing myself to be unduly influenced by the thoughts of others, but I see such things as more of a discourse to determining a final opinion.)

This process has happened for Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Premium Rush, Looper, etc. I always find a few things to criticize, without becoming incredibly nitpicky. From there I think I can give a more honest assessment. There is no perfect movie.

So, I want you to understand that when I went to see Argo last week, and came out thinking “That is the best movie I’ve seen all year”, it was a surprise to still hold that opinion seven days later. I found flaws in Argo, small ones, but was still convinced that, of the 22 new releases I’ve caught this year, Ben Affleck’s tops the list.

Argo is a dramatization of what has become known as the “Canadian Caper” that took place during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Affleck, aside from directing, plays Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfil” expert, tasked with getting six embassy staff who have taken refuge in the Canadian ambassadors home out of the country. In order to do so, he embarks upon a plan involving a fake Star Wars rip-off, an Oscar winning make-up artist and a dangerous trip into the heart of the anti-American world.

Argo is a “caper” film, much like The Italian Job, Oceans 11 or even Inception. It revolves around a clandestine operation that includes deception, subterfuge and playing on the weaknesses of the “enemy” target in order to achieve an end. The first act sees the plan formulated, the second sees it come together through the recruitment/training of a specialised team, and the third sees the plan carried out.

So, Argo is following a set formula. But, like any good caper film, it has its unique elements that set it apart. This is a movie about common themes like subterfuge, internal government politics, redemption through action. But it also has unbelievable tension, a darkly humorous tone and the amazingly creative ability to take a story we know the ending to and make it exciting.

Argo is very much an “old style” film, shot in a grainy manner, like something that could actually have been made in the 70’s. Since the film revolves around the Hollywood cinema of that era, this is pretty fitting and it adds to the ambiance to see things like the dilapidated Hollywood sign, the old news broadcasts, the basic computers all being focused on and used to get us in the mood.

This is a dirtier, more desperate world than we are used to. It reminds me very much of the Britain of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that is drab and grey, strangely oppressive in the mood being promoted. America and the staff of the CIA are both under siege from the events in Tehran, which presses in on everything we are shown. It is striking that the most colourful parts of the movie – aside from the utterly manufactured Hollywood “Argo” scenes – are in Tehran itself, which is bright and vibrant, a country in the midst of a popular revolution (though, like the Hollywood of Argo, that too is just a glossy sheen hiding a dark undercurrent).

I really enjoyed the way Argo was shot and directed by Affleck. The man can do the business behind the camera, it should be accepted by now (the dislike Affleck receives from some quarters genuinely baffles me) and more awards may well be in the offing for him now. There is nothing extravagant about Argo. The camera work aims towards a more intimate, close-up experience, whether it is Mendez talking quietly to his son on the phone while he formulates his plan, the camera panning over a Planet of the Apes movie, or the warm inviting surrounds of the Canadian ambassadors home, starkly contrasted with the dark, filthy bolthole the diplomats must flee to at the slightest noise.

But it is in the creation of tension that Affleck truly shines and if Argo is anything it is tense, the tensest film I have seen in years. This is Hitchcocksian levels of suspense, truly. From the opening scenes as the embassy is flooded by the baying crowd, right down to the final take-off sequence as the exfil operation reaches its climax; Argo is very much an edge of the seat affair.

That tension is ramped up slowly as we go along. There is a very well created sense of a “race against time”, as Mendez creates his deception, while the Iranian authorities come closer and closer to tracking down the diplomats. That is not to say that the first half of the film seems rushed or too fast flowing at all. In fact, it is the opposite: the audience feels every delay, while the Americans in Tehran cower in hiding.

Every scene in Iran is the very height of nervousness for an audience, as Mendez and the embassy staff navigate through a succession of trials, from learning their fake backstories as movie crew people through the final run at the airport, where every security check, every stare down, every gate passed brings another sigh of relief, another quivering lip. I’m not enough of a movie buff to even describe how the direction is able to achieve this effect, especially since I knew how the story ended, but it did. I suppose it’s just a matter of the right shot at the right time, a nervous look in the eyes, a suspicious face, the correct panning angle of a worried or angry crowd, a simple slip of the tongue or twitch of facial muscles.

What’s added to all that is the stuff happening back in America, as the authorities at first cancel the “op”, leaving Mendez in the position of having to disobey orders and force the issue. The moments when Mendez agonises over whether to follow commands and leave them to die (I loved that bit where the Canadian ambassador gives him advice on how to do this, so as not to have to confront the panicked embassy staff) or to “stick it to the man” as it were. The performance of Bryan Cranston in the CIA at home seals the deal on this, as he races to get Mendez and the targets through the airport checks on time.

That makes the conclusion a truly cathartic experience, as all of the tension and suspense ends and the relief comes. For creating that kind of emotional intensity, mirrored in the behaviour and actions of Mendez onscreen, Argo gets an enthusiastic appraisal from me. I remember vividly how the conclusion of The Dark Knight, with the bombs on the boats and wondering whether one side would choose to blow up the other, was another such occasion. Well, Argo outdoes that, by creating that effect for the vast majority of its running time.

Another film I saw last week was The Sapphires, a comedy. Well, it says something that I laughed more at Argo, in an intended, genuine sense. This black comedy theme is seen throughout the whole experience, though mostly in the first half and that is important at making sure that the tension does not emotionally drain the audience too early. A sarcastic quip, delivered at the right moment, can work as a suspense break before it all comes on again.

Watching the “big shots” of Hollywood create a fake movie through the correct balance of “chutzpah” and lies was very entertaining, signified in the rallying cry of the “team” as they prepare to enact the caper: “Argo fuck yourself”. Those sections are full of humorous moments, which work by exposing the ignorance and credulity of the American movie world, while showing us the canny men who are able to navigate such a universe.

Those two are John Goodman as the (real-life) Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as the (fictional) producer Lester Siegel. Those two are a delight when they are on screen together, especially Arkin as this outwardly old, infirm buffoon who is actually as whipsmart and competent as they come.  They work as Mendez’ guardians through the complex and shallow Hollywood of Argo, organising script readings, press attention and legitimacy for the operation in a way that makes you impressed and makes you laugh. Siegel might not have the smarts to understand what “Argo” is actually in reference to (as he dryly points out to a journalist who wants to know about an Argonauts connection) but he knows how to make a movie – or make people think he’s making one. Arkin creates a man who, when he says “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit”, is believable as both a funny guy and a deadly serious professional.

Bryan Cranston, who has come a long way since his days as Hal Wilkerson, does great as the CIA superior who outlines the seriousness of the situation with the hostages, provides a connection to that plot while Mendez is swanning about California and gives us some genuine anger later on as he struggles with the orders from on high to cancel the operation. His frantic actions towards the conclusion as he races to get the suddenly uncancelled plan going again shows us a man who is both worried about his friend Mendez and his countrymen in the form of the embassy staff very effectively – enough for that flash of destructive anger in his office to not be too over the top. When a character does something extreme like that, it is important that the audience doesn’t roll their eyes. Cranston achieves that purpose.

It is in some of the minor roles that Argo stumbles. Most of the higher-ups and embassy hostages are one-note characters, while those embassy staff actually hiding out are not very well characterised, save for the Stafford husband and wife couple, who signify the guilt of those who stayed in Iran despite their better judgement and resist any plan that places them in more danger. In that they become a frustrating obstacle to be overcome, perhaps the lone bit of poor pacing in the film.

The rest don’t get much time to be fleshed out, becoming little more than frightened victims, identifiable more through their respective hairstyles than character. They are the focus of the plot alright, but the actual acting drive is coming from elsewhere. The same can be said for the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) who isn’t really given much to do and is actually outdone in acting chops by his commendably loyal maid Sahar (Shiela Vand). I suppose Argo could have done a better job at making the audience identify with the embassy hideaways a bit more, but Affleck makes the directional sacrifice of selective focus on just two of them.

What’s also missing is a more singular Iranian character. Numerous Iranian revolutionaries can be seen in Argo, but most are somewhat faceless and anonymous, acting more like storm troopers than actual characters. Argo goes down the route of making Iran as alien as it can – tying in to the plan of shooting a science fiction movie there I suppose – with the emphasis on differences, the hatred towards the west and the viciousness inherent in the revolution. There are some exceptions (below) and even some sympathy after the comprehensive opening narration lays out the suffering of the Iranian people very clearly, but it is clear that this is not an Iranian story; it’s a story that is set in Iran.

But it is Affleck himself who deserves most of the praise on the acting front. He portrays Mendez as a tortured wreck of a man at the start, who sees’s in the “caper” a means to make a better man out of himself and find some reconciliation with his own estranged family. He, in a brief but effective scene, contrasts himself with the older Siegel who, having become separated from his own family, blurts out unconvincingly “a child needs his mother” almost as an excuse for his own inaction. Mendez’ worried, non-verbal reaction to that is all that is needed to understand his fears and troubles.

In so doing, he makes Mendez a man who goes on the “exfil” op looking to rescue the embassy staff, but also, vicariously, rescue his life with his family. His performance as the conflicted, sometimes desperate, yet always detached and capable Mendez is powerful stuff. Mendez, as a “spook” is a man who has to play many roles, from his devil-may-care attitude to higher-ups (sarcastically picking apart the state departments ridiculous plans), to his slightly put on confidence during the actual caper itself (never acknowledging that the plan might fail), before his more openly vulnerable actions when interacting with his young sci-fi loving son (going so far as to steal evidence from the “caper” as a gift for him). Affleck takes us through that process with an acting skill that is rare to see these days, always believable. The handshake he receives from one of the previously doubting diplomats on the plane might as well be from the audience on a job well done.

In terms of political commentary, Argo doesn’t really have much. Yes, the Iranians are the “bad guys” but I did not feel that the portrayal of the post-revolution Iran was unfair or unmerited. The angry crowds chanting their hatred was mesmerising, and the revolutionary guards at the airport had that tangible sense of power and menace. But the Iranian people, through characters like Sahar and the ministerial movie scout added a human element at times that was required.

The culminates in this rather amazing ending sequence as Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), the embassy staff member who was most at odds with Mendez’ plan, actually does the best job at selling it to the airport guards, describing their fake movie with verve and excitement. It can’t really go over many heads that the story he describes – a simple desert people rising up against an “evil” overlord – is one that mirrors the situation in Iran itself, at least in the heads of the revolutionaries. The guards, smiling and laughing, get sucked in to this tale through the storyboard sketches they are presented with, seeing in their own lives something that Hollywood is trying to capture. In that, there are not so different to anyone who finds something to identify with in the likes of Star War which suddenly turns them from deadly looking soldiers into harmless young men gleefully flicking through movie memorabilia (though they rapidly become a threat one more). That humanizing element, while missing from large parts of the Iranian depiction (even in that scene there is no great distinguishing for the “villains”), is important as a climax. The final, tension filled delay at the departure gate is easily one of the best scenes I have seen in any movie, ever.

Some have commented critically on the historical inaccuracies present in Argo. Most are easily excusable through artistic license and simplification for an audience, but I find myself in agreement with critics who felt Argo gives a slightly slanted portrayal of the operation in favour of the CIA, largely ignoring the role of the Canadian government. Similar, the one line treatment of the British and New Zealand embassies, causally portrayed as “turning away” the embassy staff seeking refuge is grossly inaccurate and can easily be seen as somewhat offensive. I can excuse the first inaccuracy because this is a story based primarily around a CIA agent, but the second seems totally unnecessary (for the record, the six embassy staff initially hid at the British embassy before moving on to the safer Canadian option by choice, while a member of the NZ embassy actually drove them to the airport on their way home).

These are small complaints though. Argo is, in my eyes, without major faults, and has so much good in it as to eclipse what few deficiencies it has (what I call “the Inception test”). It’s well written, well directed, well acted and well paced, from the opening embassy break-in to the final recap. Argo is a fantastic, intelligent, tension filled movie that any fan of capers, espionage or historical films will enjoy. It comes fully recommended as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and (so far) the best movie I’ve seen all year.

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6 Responses to Argo

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