Thursday, October 25, 2012

‘Argo’ (2012) directed by Ben Affleck, 22nd October 2012

‘Argo’ is a film that tells you a story so preposterous that it must be true.  It’s a very funny film that gets seat-grippingly tense.  One that tries its level best to do justice to some pretty complex geopolitics but also fumbles the ball a bit in a few aspects.

The film is set in Iran at the time of the Iranian Embassy hostage crisis.  The Shah had just been deposed and was been granted sanctuary in the US.  The Iranian people wanted to put the Shah on trial, but the US refused to turn him over.  The boiling point came when a mob stormed the Iranian embassy in Tehran, and took 52 embassy staff hostage.  So far, so well known.  What’s less well known is that six embassy staff managed to escape onto the streets in the confusion, and took refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador.  Eventually the Iranians realised that they’re short six staff members, and came hunting for them.  The USA had got to get them out of there, and their best bet was Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) an ‘exfiltration’ expert.  His plan was to smuggle them out of the country under the guise of a Hollywood location scouting crew for a fake science fiction film called ‘Argo’.

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez
It’s a hell of a good story, and Affleck has done a great job bringing it to life on screen.  There are some bravura directing moments in this film, particularly the opening sequence showing the embassy being stormed.  The film begins with a quick run-down of the C20th history of Iran, before moving straight into the midset of an furious mob demanding justice.  Almost immediately we get a sense of the geography of the situation through aerial shots of the building and the crowd.   As the situation becomes worse, and the protesters begin climbing the walls a well drilled panic sets in that gives way to chaos very quickly.  We see the Embassy staff frantically destroying as much classified information as they can, and the military desperately trying to work out how to contain this situation without pouring petrol onto an already out of control fire.

Affleck quickly cross-cuts between the embassy staff, and the crowd outside who are swarm ing the building from top to bottom.  The sense of things rapidly spiralling out of control is captured perfectly.  Suddenly there are people on the roof, in the cellar and before you know it, through the front door.  The mixture of aerial shots (which may be really great CG), and handheld grainy film gives everything a feeling of intense authenticity.  The scene is given added power by the recent embassy attack in Benghazi.  The similarities seem clear; staff initially taking the mob for granted ‘after all, there’s protests every day’ to the sudden cold sweat of panic when they realise all barriers have been overcome, and there’s nothing between you and an angry chaotic mob.

They may not look it in this picture, but trust me, those Iranians are FURIOUS
One of the main reasons why this scene works so well is that the Iranians are represented as more of an unstoppable force of nature than as individuals.  We see them seemingly acting as one, their faces twisted in anger, practically foaming at the mouth.  Affleck seems to use a lot of the same directorial tricks as you'd see in a zombie film, particularly Zack Snyder's remake of 'Dawn of the Dead' (2004).  Meanwhile, the embassy staff get quickly sketched character moments over the course of their escape.  These sketches evolve throughout the film, we quickly engage with the personalities of these six and sympathise easily with their plight.  Meanwhile, the Iranian people are generally represented by large mobs, and if we do get to see individuals, they are generally shouting aggressively in Farsi and terrifying our leads.

This obviously is a bit problematic, but to be fair the film seems conscious of the somewhat murky tools its using to create suspense.  As mentioned, it takes care to contextualise the story in the history of the country in a comic book style that seems to take direct inspiration from Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis’ (2007).  So, theoretically the film justifies the anger of the mob, it's at least partly successful in explaining why these people are so angry and upset at Americans.  It’s less successful when it comes to the sole entirely sympathetic Iranian in the film, a loyal servant who sacrifices herself to aid her Western masters.  In going to so much trouble to outline her as ‘the one good Iranian’, they perversely make everyone else look much worse. 

The embassy staff trapped in the Canadian Ambassador's house
Ben Affleck seems like a conscientious film-maker (he even added a postscript praising Canadian involvement in the operation this film depicts after people got upset), but at the heart of the production process here is a catch 22.  To make it as tense and effective as possible, it’s dramatically necessary to portray the Iranian people as a single-minded, violent horde.  For narrative purposes they sort of have to be extremely otherised, the more sympathetic they become, the less we're scared of them.  I don’t believe Affleck sincerely wants to paint an entire people with an understandable political grievance as monsters, but he's in the difficult position of doing just that.

For me, this was a hard stumbling block to get over, as were the general politics of the film.  I’m not exactly inclined to buy into any narrative that posits the CIA as fine, upstanding, noble people when all evidence points to the fact that they’re one of the most sinister and immoral organisations of the 20th century.  What I have to concede is that in this instance they seem to be acting justifiably, and anyway, I'm not going to side with the Ayatollah.

US exceptionalism clocking in for the day
It’s fortunate then, that the central plot of this film is so compelling and unique (well, maybe ‘Three Kings’ is a little similar).  ‘Argo’ uses the central plot device of a ‘fake’ movie shoot as a way to shine a light on the way intelligence services spar with one another.  In a fantastic sequence we see a fake press event for ‘Argo’, complete with bombshell actresses dressed in unlikely, cheesy looking Flash Gordon gear cross cut with footage from the hostage crisis.  The message seems clear, this is all theatre.  The difference is that if the hostage's performances aren't convincing enough then they're going to be killed.  

This comparison raises the film up from being just another espionage thriller, and the audience knowledge that all this really happened only adds to the feeling of import.  The film only really falters when it decides to artificially make things more exciting.  In the final sequences there are perhaps one too many hurdles placed in front of our intrepid heroes, one too many unlikely coincidences or times when they look doomed, and then are saved in the nick of time.  This adds up, and the fact that the film becomes a bit more self-consciously unrealistic saps some of the tension from the end of the film.  What should be a sudden, intense relaxation of tension ‘merely’ becomes a happy ending.  It’s a little frustrating, they had me!  I was on the hook for much of the film, fully involved with each little idiosyncratic twist the plot took, but you get the feeling they felt that their amazing real-life tale wasn't quite amazing enough, and had to embellish it a bit.

Ben Affleck and an angry, unnamed Iranian (one of many in this film)
So this is a film with issues, but ones that it’s possible to overlook.  It’s a fantastic achievement in direction for Ben Affleck too.  His performance in this is perfectly serviceable, playing as he does a man whose skill is in blending in, but it’s behind the camera where he shows some real élan.  This directorial confidence, coupled with a top notch supporting cast means ‘Argo’ is a fascinating snapshot of a rarely explored part of recent history. 

'Argo' is on general release from the 7th of November 2012

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1 Responses to “‘Argo’ (2012) directed by Ben Affleck, 22nd October 2012”

Anonymous said...
October 25, 2012 at 10:34 PM

Good review. Not the most perfect movie I’ve seen this year, but is still an entertaining flick about a top-secret mission nobody ever knew about. Sadly, we all know how it ends and that’s what kind of sucks all of the energy out of this flick in the long-run.

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