The arc of Ben Affleck’s directorial career has been an alien one; firstly, the fact that he directs at all came as something of a surprise to most, as did the quality of his debut –Gone, Baby, Gone. Gone wasn’t just a great movie but a very dark and dramatic one to boot – its content caustic and the ambiguity of its approach chilling. That he would follow this up with a rather formulaic, but excellently executed action-thriller like The Town surprised again; surely with this newfound cinematic clout he could have wrangled up a more prestigious screenplay. That is exactly what he did here for his third picture, Argo, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is instantly a more serious picture.
It’s a strange title that, you may well be wondering what exactly is an Argo?
A) Argo is a black comedy satirizing the star-blind Hollywood of the Seventies, a light-hearted picture and the logical progression of Ben’s path.
B) Argo is a dark, political period drama requiring a cabinet level knowledge of past foreign policy and a glossary of now unknown terms; it’s Ben moving back into the serious, into Clooney’s directorial turf.
C) Argo is a classic crowd pleasing cathartic drama that had a cinema full of cynical, battle-hardened critics cheering and clapping during the climax despite knowing full well that such noise is a fatal faux pa.
D) All of the above.
The answer of course is D, it was a rhetorical question. Here though is a real one: it may be the right answer, but is it also the best one? The film plays all of these tones off one another quite technically, tempering each element of the movie with an equal and opposite reaction. So if the satire seems a little silly to you, the following scene showing the non-consenting suicide of one of the Shah’s few supporters will snap you right out of that train. It’s a tale with the kind of tonal inconsistency that only true stories can get away with and this adaptation of it is an intricate balance between farce and tragedy that manages to pull it together, but with moat like seams.
That this is a true story is important to it’s believability. That it is a true story being told now even more so. The idea of Iran being a threat to US lives is a remarkably relevant one, one much easier to swallow than the fact that the two were allies for the many years preceding it. Yes, the middle east is arguably always in some sort of turmoil and Iran as its figurehead will always play a pivotal part in that but to see release right in the midst of the Benghazi bloodshed is beautiful, silver-lining timing for the production ( though none of them would have ever wished for it); no one will fail to believe that a US embassy could fall to student protesters or that a seemingly mundane march of muslims could surprise with its lethality and effectiveness.
The way that the film comments on these connections though is clever, the approach that it takes complex like the tones ( but only in regards to the political side of the story; thematically the other is bare despite including the perfect opportunity to comment on the crafts of acting, writing etc.) We see Arab’s take American’s hostage yes, but we also see the very real reason why they would be driven to do such a thing and in a quick glimpse we are shown ironic footage of Patriotic Americans retaliating with a violent siege on the Iranian consulate in Washington. The characters that we follow are from the continental US yes, but for every American hero there is a hood – not least of which is President Jimmy Carter – and an Iranian counterpart that does their due diligence to act humanely.
The most stunning reversal however is the way that it shows Americans as strangers in a strange land, a minority ostracized for atrocities that they had no real hand in committing: when conflict erupts with a crowd in the central bazaar it isn’t because Arab’s are evil or simply scary by nature but because one man had his son die in his arms, shot dead by an American gun. The US government is portrayed as two-faced in all of this, responsible for making this mess in the Midlde-East but also trying to clean it up in the moralist possible way. Based on the brilliant abridgement of history in the opening credits one gets the sense that Ben is critical of both big sides in this story, supporting only the little people trapped between the two.
As far as its people go this picture is a huge success, the cast is astounding and they all give amazing performances. Alan Arkin and John Goodman show real old-school charisma in the studio-set scenes stateside, shooting zingers at the screen so fast that you almost here the noise that gave them their name but comedically it is Bryan Cranston who steals the show, speaking all of the best lines. On the other side of the world the houseguests, most of whom are mortally underused, give suitably sombre and sorrowful turns as they sit cramped in the Canadian embassy, awaiting their death like twisted cancer patients. Affleck’s acting though isn’t all that astounding; he delivers but is probably the weakest actor here by far.
Primarily this is because the role he plays is as protagonist but not star; despite living one of the most intriguing lives of all time the character of Antonio Mendez here is a bland and functionary one; he is here only to come up with the concept and espouse it to others. I would say that this was a very selfless act by Ben but I’m really not sure that this is true because of how many selfish seeds there are to be found within the film; such as a needless shirtless scene and a shoehorned in story about an estranged young son that didn’t come from the original book or the reality that it is based on.
Honestly, I have to say that Ben’s direction is also a little below par; it too is good but far from the star of the show like it should be ( and like it was in the visceral, potent shoot outs of The Town). The film, like a lot of productions this year, opens with the vintage studio logos but it is unique in that it continues with the seventies style after the credits; the film shot with the same filters and focus settings as those of the era so that the archival footage used rarely feels anachronistic in comparison. This though is all that I can remember of his input, the rest of the technical stuff was simply solid but unremarkable, which is something of a shame given his talent.
The film, as messy and scattershot as it is, does have a star though and that honor of course goes to the long-Blacklisted screenplay that was written years ago from Antonio Mendez’s fantastic book. Because of its inherent secrecy this is a story that wasn’t told at the time but one that needed to be told now, when that the idea of the US doing anything cleanly in the middle-east is as ludicrous as The Hollywood Option was then and Affleck tells it professionally and pleasingly but not personally. You will leave this film having learnt something – it’s educational – and having had fun – it’s entertaining – but not moved like you maybe should; it then lacks emotion and that is surely the primary purpose of reselling a story in this medium, to make you feel the facts rather than have them forced down your throat; a story about the power of stories should really have gotten that.