Friday, October 19, 2012

When Less is More: Argo

The closing credits sequence for Argo, a movie about the CIA's bizarre covert operation designed to safely return six Americans from Iran amidst the 1979 hostage crisis by disguising them as members of a Hollywood film production, begins with a montage juxtaposing the movie's characters with photos of their real-life inspirations. Over the past 10 years or so, this device has become de rigueur in historical dramas aimed at mainstream audiences, as if to prevent people from tripping over one another while calling up Wikipedia on their smartphones on their way out of the multiplex. But Argo's montage goes beyond the typical human before-and-afters by juxtaposing images of the film's mise en scene with its historical inspiration: an Iranian hopping over the fence of the U.S. embassy; a man, standing on a ledge, burning an American flag above a throbbing hoard of revolutionaries; a woman, dressed in a chador, holding a machine gun while riding in a jeep; and, back in this country, the famous Hollywood sign, only half upright in the sunburned Los Angeles hills. It's as if director Ben Affleck is underlining one last time that, yes, this really happened, and, yes, this is what it really looked like. Considering Hollywood's tendency to turn small facts into tall tales, and given the film's frequently comic tone, it's a reassurance that some moviegoers will no doubt appreciate. And yet what Argo does best within the margins of the movie proper is to convey its story's time and place with an air of assured authenticity — no underlining required.

The realism begins, of course, with careful attention to historic detail, as confirmed by that aforementioned credits montage. The sets, costumes, props and hair/makeup all distinctly evoke the late 1970s. But Argo takes the next step by evoking a late 1970s movie, too, both aesthetically (using that now familiar desaturated, brown-gold color palette) and tonally (concocting a thriller in which the protagonists are more or less regular guys — even the CIA and Hollywood types — battling against a seemingly omnipresent villainous force). There are elements of the film, written by Chris Terrio, that are too convenient to take seriously (more on this in a bit), but on the whole Affleck has a knack for making us present with the past, often utilizing archival news footage of reporters like Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace and Tom Brokaw to blur the line between history and drama while providing narrative context. I'm tempted to say that Argo could fit nicely into a double bill with actual 1970s intellectual thrillers like Three Days of the Condor or All the President's Men, and indeed that's true. And yet for me the movie that Argo most resembles is another turn-back-the-clock picture that managed to create gripping suspense from a foregone conclusion: Apollo 13.

(I'm going to go ahead and issue a spoiler warning here, not because I think you you'll be surprised by the general outcome, but because I'll touch on some specifics about how that outcome is presented.)

Like Ron Howard's 1995 NASA flick, Argo has an unmistakable respect for the events it's depicting. The screenplay has fun with the Hollywood element of the charade, thanks to jovial character performances from Alan Arkin (as a veteran movie mogul) and John Goodman (as makeup artist John Chambers), and it's dotted with an obnoxious amount of one-liners (of 2012 films, only The Avengers works harder to make every character so consistently clever), but all of that is offset by a solemn attitude about what's at stake. The storming of the embassy, grippingly recreated at the start of the picture, sets the tone for everything that follows. It would be going too far to suggest that the six American hideaways are developed characters — just about everything we know about them we learn in a two-minute briefing — but collectively they convey the gravity of the situation in their paranoid behavior and terrified expressions. And then there's Affleck, who arguably shouldn't be playing Latino Tony Mendez, but who wisely avoids overplaying the role and turning the CIA agent into some kind of James Bondian superhero. Is Mendez the smartest guy in the room, the bravest? Maybe. Sometimes. But Affleck plays him like a guy who acts heroically simply because it's a job requirement, because he has no other choice.

Whether that was Affleck's intent is hard to guess. For all the actors who shine on the screen and then bore us on the promotional tour, bumbling their way through interviews as if they need a screenplay to have something to say, Affleck is the opposite. He's handsome, smart, charming, funny and just plain likeable — the kind of guy you want to see shooting the shit with Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel. But on the big screen, compared to other male leads, he tends to be rather dull. The camera doesn't love him. He often looks vacant or unconfident, as if he knows the words but doesn't believe in them, or doesn't trust that he can pull them off. Somehow Affleck manages to avoid being an offensive presence (read: he's not Nicolas Cage), which makes him a nice fit for movies like Argo and The Town, in which he plays guys who are at the center of their story but aren't so remarkable that they need to hog the spotlight. Three films into his directing career, Affleck seems to be that kind of filmmaker, too. Not unlike Howard's, Affleck's films are professional, efficient, utilitarian — and sometimes a bit too much on the nose. There's plenty of time for Affleck to create a distinctive artistic flair, if he so desires, but for now his signature style is not really having one.

That said, making engaging but unspectacular movies isn't anything to be ashamed of, and that brings us here: Argo's greatest misstep is an occasional desire to be spectacular when solid would suffice. Even in conscientious historical portrayals like this one, we take it as a given that liberties will be taken with the truth in the name of suspense and excitement, which is why we're happy to play along when the plane tickets providing a means for escape are made available at precisely the last moment, and when a phone call crucial to establishing the escapees' cover story is answered on what would have been the last ring. But when, after a series of near disasters, the shuttle van taking the Americans from the terminal to the plane struggles to shift into a forward gear, well, let's just say that at least 20 percent of the folks in my screening recognized that obstacle for what it was: unintentional farce. Likewise, Affleck's Howard-esque desire to give everyone a triumphant reaction shot is another example of too much of a good thing. It's when Affleck allows the movie to be less spectacular than the stunt it's portraying that Argo is at its most riveting.


Jeremy said...

Oh man, I half expected the damn gas to start leaking out of the airplane near the end. This really milked the heck out of that airport sequence, to the point where I just rolled my eyes by the end; "Yeah, ok, just get on the plane now, please"

It's a good movie. It's not a great one, I don't understand some of the more lavish praises it's been handed down like it's the next coming of Three Days to the Condor or All the President's Men, but it's solid enough.

jake said...

I think I'll see this eventually, but I'm not super excited, and your review kind of echoed how I felt about "The Town." Eh, pretty good. Not amazing. Good enough. Didn't understand the folks who were like "Wow! Fantastic!"

And why does Affleck have to be in his movies? That actually drives me nuts, because it comes off as so egotistical. He's proven he has solid directing skills - why not cast one of the 50 better-suited actors available as the lead and just focus on directing? His acting's always just kind of fine. Or, good enough. Why not make the most of these lead roles and step aside, do all your heavy lifting behind the lens?


I hope all the hype doesn't sway the Academy into ignoring PTA and his actual masterpiece. "Argo" seems destined to be the most POPULAR movie of the season, but there's no way it will be the best.

Thanks for the review, as always. Love it.

Hokahey said...

Yes, Argo certainly fits in there with the intellectual thrillers you mention - before the whole airport scene. Nice observation. I was going to forgive the film the part in which the pursuing vehicles JUST ABOUT head off the plane as the pilot blithely heads for the takeoff. But the reaction shots and the didactic credits were too much. Too much!

Tony Dayoub said...

Jason, the penultimate paragraph of your piece is one of the most incisive you've ever written.

I disagree with Jake (and maybe you?) about Affleck's casting here. On a meta level, ARGO is also about what it takes to orchestrate a creative project like a film. Affleck's casting as Mendez, with what often seems a tangential focus on the agent's estrangement from his family, could just as well be commenting on the life of itinerant filmmakers as it does on CIA operatives.

jake said...

Tony, interesting point. I like your comments!

But I can't see Affleck - the guy who went ahead and included a nice, juicy, high-contrast shot of himself doing pull-ups, shirtless, in "The Town" - as a guy who approaches his own casting in "Argo" on the level you are suggesting.

Call me cynical, but I think it's ego, and I think that literally dozens of equally likable actors could usually stand in for Affleck and do a better job, in almost any of the movies he's acted in. He's just never convinced me that he has the soul or depth his brother and others like him have.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

One note about the ending first: I saw ARGO a second time, and at that screening the crowd didn't snicker at the ending like many in my first screening did -- not loud enough for me to hear them, at least. In fact, the woman in front of me let out a huge sigh of relief when the plane got off the ground. (I'm surprised she was so invested: she talked to her friend through half the movie.) As I suggest in my review, it isn't the historic realism (or lack thereof) of the conclusion that's problematic -- it's the dramatic excess. It's the same problem I had with all the one-liners: when everyone is clever and funny, no one really is; and when everything is suspenseful, nothing really is; etc.

Tony (and Jake): First off, heartfelt thanks for the kind words. As for Affleck's casting ...

Unlike Jake I don't see Affleck's self-casting as egotistical. There's such a long trend of actor/directors acting in their own pictures, and it makes sense to me on a very basic level: if you've been an actor all your life, you're probably going to have an urge to act in any project that interests you enough to want to direct it.

Now, where I'm kind of similar mind with Jake here is that I do think Affleck is aware with movies like THE TOWN and ARGO that, in essence, if he doesn't cast himself in those star (sometimes shirtless) roles, another director probably won't. It gives him an opportunity to be a top-of-the-marquee actor, which in the past has pretty much required him to slum in some lousy pictures. So by casting himself, he gives himself quality acting assignments. And Jake, you might call that ego, but I call it a good career move.

Tony: As for your take on what ARGO is at a meta level: I can't entirely disagree with your reading, but I don't get the sense that ARGO is a particularly meta film, beyond the multiple jokes at Hollywood's expense.

Those jokes ("if he could act, he wouldn't be the minotaur," "you want to do nothing ... you'll fit right in," "you could teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day," etc) might not have been written by Affleck, but they are very much in line with his public persona, which seems built on an understanding that he's a "star" with relatively average talents.

So, yeah, ARGO has fun skewering Hollywood. But beyond that I think Affleck's film is very much about what it appears to be about: a historic event in which the "truth" seems stranger than fiction. If ARGO is about "what it takes to orchestrate a creative project like a film," wouldn't that suggest that Affleck sees the director as the hero, given that Mendez (the guy directing the project) is the one who brings order to the chaos? Thus, wouldn't that portrayal contrast with what the rest of the film seems to be suggesting, that Hollywood is filled with people who take themselves too seriously? That's where I get stuck on that one. Thoughts?

Tony Dayoub said...

To clarify, I said it was "also" about orchestrating a creative project. And I don't think skewering Hollywood precludes presenting Mendez as director-hero. On the one hand, Affleck seems to be poking fun at the money men or non-field agents while acknowledging their necessity, i.e. the parallel between Arkin and Cranston, both presented as mildly comic, paternal fellows with their heart in the right place. He's even more negative towards upper management in both government and Hollywood. The two senior government officials (one played by Philip Baker Hall) could just as well be okaying an actual Hollywood production rather than approving an exfiltration. Affleck's greatest sympathy is reserved for the field agents on the front lines, like Mendez, the embassy workers/film crew, and the Canadian ambassador, who all represent creatives from that perspective (i.e. getting into character, putting on a show for those surveillance them).

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: I wasn't trying to misquote you. I noticed the "also." Sorry if I didn't put your analysis in proper context.

I see the connections. But my point is that even within the meta reading, even within the "also," these things seem to conflict as often as complement.

For example:

* Affleck seems to suggest the director isn't all that important, and yet Mendez is the guy directing the operation, and he's very important.

* The "upper management" in the government operation is distant and clueless, but the "upper management" of Hollywood is best represented by Arkin's character (right?), who is anything but clueless.

Meanwhile, I don't see a strong comparison between the escaping embassy workers and Hollywood actors/crew. If the point is that they're both somewhat powerless (the embassy workers can't design their own escape, just like actors/crew must wait for orders), that's true (and I'm not saying that's your reading; I'm just thinking out loud). But at the same time, the film would seem to suggest that the powerless can be saved from the foolishness of the upper management thanks to the genius of a talented director. And that sends me back again to the evidence that Affleck otherwise seems to be trying to downplay the importance of a director, not celebrate it.

I admit, maybe Arkin is better equated to the Cranston character: a non-field agent. But the film flatters both of them repeatedly.

I see a loose comparison between the idea that Hollywood and government, for all their egotism and foolishness and chaos, can eventually get things right, and maybe that's all you're implying. But when I try to make a deeper connection, it gets messy.

Tony Dayoub said...

Affleck has complicated feelings about it, I'm sure. But I think the parallel isn't as loose as you suggest. His framing of the events suggests a "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" attitude towards both the Hollywood and government machines.

* I disagree about your characterization of Affleck's perspective on the director/supervising field agent's role. It's more nuanced than the simple binary you lay out. He's saying that Mendez is an important cog, but nonetheless just a cog, in the machine.

* Also, I'd say Arkin is middle management just like Cranston is. Arkin may be a supervisor of sorts, but he still answers to the higher studio authorities who are as faceless as the Carter administration.

* "...the film would seem to suggest that the powerless can be saved from the foolishness of the upper management thanks to the genius of a talented director."

Almost there, but I would change the last part of this to read, "thanks to a well directed collaboration between all of the creatives involved."

* Arkin and Cranston are flattered, but ARGO also pointedly avoids treating them with the same reverence they reserve for Chambers and Mendez. They straddle the line between ineffectual and righteous in a way that the more passionate Chambers and Mendez do not.

* If nothing else, the didactic credit sequence Hokahey mentions serves to give the audience a peek behind the curtain, reinforcing for the viewer the line between fiction and reality, taking us out of ARGO to remind us that the movie is just as much of a sham as the operation was. In that respect, the excess of the close escape fits right in and doesn't bother me one bit.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony, yeah, we obviously just see this one differently. For example, I see the credits sequence as an attempt to underline the truthful nature of these fictions, not to draw a line between them. Likewise, I think the Arkin/Cranston characters are anything but ineffectual. And I just can't come around on the idea that the embassy escapees are "creatives" (beyond the one moment when the one American adlibs with the storyboards).

I might be misreading it, simply based on the detail you've provided here in attempt to answer my questions (which I appreciate), but while you seem to see a very deliberate "meta" intent here (is that right?), I see ARGO as an effort to honor the historical event through reenactment, not an attempt to suggest something deeper ... even as an "also." I don't sense that depth here.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah, you're right about the way I see it. I believe Affleck is trying to honor the event on one level and ascribe a meta parallel on another, one which gives ARGO a personal (to Affleck, I mean) dimension.