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.