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Non-Review Review: Argo

Argo might not seem like it, with the action unfolding amidst the Iranian embassy siege and the stakes involved in the rescue of six hostages, but it is something of an affectionate love letter to cinema from Ben Affleck, who is emerging as one of the most talented actors-writers-directors of our time. From the moment that the grain scratches across the retro Warner Brothers logo to the closing credits where fact and fiction compare and contrast, Argo feels like a celebration of movie magic. Perhaps it’s a little tooself-congratulatory at points, as films made by Hollywood about Hollywood tend to be, but Affleck’s direction keeps the movie surprisingly focused. The film maker does an exceptional job wringing real tension from a true story – no small accomplishment, and a testament to his ability.

Standing out from the crowd…

My inner cynic suggests that Argo is really the perfect Oscar movie. It’s political without being confrontational. It’s a film about film making, but not in an obvious in-your-face sort of way. It’s from one of those very talented individuals who has demonstrated his talent in front of and behind the camera. At one point in the movie a producer namedrops Warren Beatty, and it seems an appropriate reference. It’s exceptionally well-cast, using recognisable and respected faces in roles both large and small. It’s crafted with the finest technical skill.

And, the truth is, that Affleck carries it off. Argo is a pretty impressive film from the director, even if it’s not quite as good as Gone Baby Gone. (I respected The Town, even if I didn’t love it.) It is good enough to be all those things without seeming exploitive or cheesy or leaning too heavily on the expected plaudits. I really liked Argo, even if I wasn’t always entirely convinced. Affleck’s skill is beyond question at this point. He’s managed to cast off the unfortunate decisions of his earlier career, to the point where a reference to Phantoms or Gigli seems like a cheap shot.

Sticking to the script…

Argo reads a genuine and affectionate homage to the power of Hollywood make-believe, to the point where a goofy (and admitted) Star Wars knock-off is able to potentially save the lives of six innocent embassy employees trapped in the midst of a violent revolution. Throughout the film, various characters use iconic film and television references to convey their points. “I’m mad as hell!” one interviewee comments on the hostage situation, explicitly mentioning Network. Preparing Tony for a meeting with the State Department, Jack O’Donnell warns him, “It’s like talking to those two old $#!s from The Muppets!”

Indeed, what little sense of Tony Mendes’ personal life is conveyed through popular culture. Ringing up his son, living with his mother half-way across the country, one of his first questions is, “What are we watching?” The pair proceed to share in the experience of watching one of the forgotten Planet of the Apes sequels, the film – cheesy as it might be – forming some shared emotional experience over a vast distance. One of many historical liberties the script takes concerns that Hollywood sign.

Time to step up…

Flying into Hollywood to meet his contacts, Mendes noted the dilapidated Hollywoodland sign, barely standing and only faintly recognisable. The sign had been in a similar state, but had been renovated a year earlier, as part of a drive started by Alice Cooper. However, the broken sign is symbolic and essential to the story. Argo is a story where Hollywood gets to be the hero of the piece, where movies and popular culture become something more than just a pastime to be shared and enjoyed.

There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that Affleck handles superbly, cutting from a table-reading in Hollywood to a staged execution in Iran to the harsh words exchanged across diplomatic channels. It’s a wonderful, macabre, connection that Affleck forges, suggesting that all of it is theatrics. Dragging the hostages into the basement to fake their execution is just showmanship from the hostage-takers, just as most of the official statements represent posturing. The only thing different about the people in silly costumes at that posh hotel reading science-fiction nonsense is the fact they concede their theatricality.

It’s not the custom…

There’s something quite universal about the love of cinema. Everybody in the film seems versed in it. Meeting an Iranian official at the bizaar, the guy asks whether the crew are making a “princess” movie, and describes the archetypes and plot devices with practised ease. Dealing with two revolutionary guards, Mendes placates them with some Jack Kirby storyboards. We don’t get a translation of their interactions, but we don’t need one. They communicate through a universal dialogue of hand movements and improvised sound effects.

(Indeed, it’s telling that even the Iranian Republican Guard are familiar with American film and television. However, it works both ways. The crew seems to strike a bit of a chord with the armed soldiers when they explain the science-fiction script in terms that obviously reflect the Iranian perspective. Argosuggests, perhaps, that film is just one of those things that crosses all borders and transcends all language barriers – that method of storytelling that is familiar and recognisable to anybody anywhere on the planet, no matter how different they might be.)

“If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”
“I thought this was the circus.”
“No, that’s MI6.”

There are times, perhaps, when Argo seems a little too self-congratulatory. We spend a large portion of the first half of the film inside the Hollywood machine, only for it to take a back seat towards the climax. It’s always a little vaguely uncomfortable to watch Hollywood make movies about how Hollywood makes movies, no matter how solid the execution. Affleck does it with enough skill that it works, but the film skirts that line occasionally during its runtime.

Perhaps the script is a little overcrowded. We seem to jump from one thing to another quite quickly. In a way, that’s a good thing – the film feels far more substantial than its running time suggests. However, it also means that various plot threads and characters drift in and out over time. Affleck manages to keep Iran itself central throughout the film, but the movie collects more than its fair share of loose ends. Barring one important moment at the climax, the Hollywood characters are shuffled pretty much off-stage at the half-way point. Mendes’ personal life feels like an unnecessary addition to an already packed script.

“I don’t want anyone corpsing out there…”

Still, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. The casting is pretty great. Affleck makes a charming and convincing leading man, but there’s room for Affleck regulars like Victor Garber and Titus Welliver. Bryan Cranston is in fine supporting form, as are Alan Arkin and John Goodman. The six escapees are exceptionally well-handled. None are exceptionally developed as characters, given the time available, but they all feel like more than just the baggage Mendes has to lug across the border to safety.

Argo is very good. I think there are some minor flaws that hold it back from greatness, but it is another demonstration of Affleck’s increasing prowess as a film maker. Based on the quality of his first three films as a director, he has a great future ahead of him.

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4 Responses

  1. Fantastic review. Been reading you blog for a while and honestly besides roger ebert,you’re my go-to.

    Thanks man,

    Joey

  2. Fantastic review man. Disagreed with a couple of points but you’re a great read.

    • Cheers. If we all agreed, it would be boring! Some of my favourite film writers are those I frequently disagree with, if only because I’m more interested in what they have to say than whether they agree with my opinion.

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