Saturday, October 20, 2012

Film Review: Argo

After re-watching both Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town in the same timeframe as seeing Argo, I can safely say that Ben Affleck is one of the best directors working today.

Argo is alternately fun and tense without feeling out of balance or out of place. The story begins with the taking of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979. The sense of claustrophobia and fear is palpable as the angry voices in the distant get louder and louder, breaking into the seeming security of the buildings. While most of the Americans are taken hostage, 6 of them manage to make it out the back door and they hide with the Canadian Ambassador (played by a solid, but underused Victor Garber).

The story then shifts to CIA headquarters where Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a crazy idea: create a fake movie, go into Iran and have all of the Americans leave pretending to be a Canadian film crew. In order to make the cover story believable, he flies out to Hollywood to work with his contact, make-up genius John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they navigate the illusory world of movie-making to give substance to their subterfuge. The last act then takes us back to Iran to put the plan into motion.

The most notable thing about Affleck as a director is that he lets his movies get better as they unfold. It is a quality that you don't notice is lacking in many movies until you see it in one like Argo. There tends to be a lot of focus on the opening, which is good because most movie audiences decided if they like a movie or not in the first 10 minutes. But often movies either peak too soon or they plateau Affleck grips you in the beginning and he lures you deeper and deeper until the tension is almost unbearable.

And for this movie, Affleck really puts you into the period. He even starts it with the old 70's Warner Bros logo. I can't tell you what a simple and wonderful set up that was at transporting me to a different time. He lets the film grain and technique harken back to that era as well. And while I'm not a fan of most movies made during that time period, I was taken by its authentic feel and tone.

This is, however, not Affleck's best movie. And I think the main reason is that he did not have a hand in writing the script. Lest it be forgotten, he won an Academy Award for writing, and with good reason. He has the ability to make even the most extraneous characters interesting and empathetic. The script for Argo always seems to keep you at arm's length. We feel badly for the Americans in hiding, but in the same way we feel badly about people we see in sad news stories. We don't really get to know them as people.

For example, one of the Americans, Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), has this very sad, moving monologue about how his wife (played by the also underused Kerry Bishe) begged to leave Iran with him, but he refused. And now he is afraid that they both will die. It is a very nice monologue. But something was off. Then I realized he's talking ABOUT his wife, not WITH his wife. She's right in the next room and this bit of story information could have been given to us through a dialogue between the two. Doing so, we would have seen more of both their characters revealed and become more invested in their relationship.

In this movie, you never get close enough to anyone, and that is its biggest flaw. If they had added this x-factor, Argo would be moved from good to great. The same can be said of the performances. They are good, but they never reach the greatness of their potential. And again, I think this falls less on Affleck's shoulders as it does the script.

Some may criticize another aspect of the story where the evils of the American backed Shah are constantly revisited and set against the backlash created in the Ayatollah's regime. Though it may seem like this a back-handed “blame America” point, I would disagree. In all of Affleck's movies, he tries to pull you into the perspective of all the characters, whether they are drug-addicts, cop-killers, or Islamofacists. He makes you see things through their eyes without condoning or condemning.

Two side notes: First, there is a moment in the movie where Mendez uses an abortion analogy to describe extraction. He says, “Extraction is like an abortion. You don't want to need one, but if you do, you don't do it yourself.” Not only was this line unnecessary, it took me completely out of the movie. I spent the next few minutes thinking about that line and not about the action on the screen. It was a totally needless jab against over half of the US population that is pro-life.

Second, this movie did something I have never seen before. It sampled other movie scores and credited them in the soundtrack. Sometime a movie will lift the Superman or Star Wars themes, but here it applied another movie's music, like from 2001's Spy Game, and used it as its own score. I know that I've done this with student movies, but I've never seen it done like this.

But I have to say that one of my favorite thematic elements is the universality of movies. Film unleashes a whole new echelon of creativity and communication. As an art form, movies can reach across geographic and cultural boundaries. In one scene in the movie, one of the characters explains the plot of the fake film to some Iranian soldiers. The plot is standard sci-fi fare, but the themes he related of family, honor, and freedom resonated because they are universal themes. And in the context of science fiction and fantasy, we put aside our everyday prejudices and have an experience of those catholic ideas.

I used “catholic,” not “Catholic” to describe how movies can touch all of us. But Affleck is, despite the above line on abortion, one of the most Catholic film-makers around. His movies are full of Catholic imagery and themes. He is wonderfully subtle about it, like where one of the American's puts a holy card in his “Argo” script and nothing more is made of it. He fills his world with churches and holy sites in such a matter-of-fact way that the strength of it is in acknowledging the solid existence of religion in everyday life. As a Catholic, I am grateful that he brings that sensibility to his film.

Argo is a very good movie. In fact, it's one of the best movies I've seen this year. It's biggest detriment is that it is not great. And that's not so bad at all.

4 out of 5 stars

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