Skip to main content

If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit.


Argo
(2012)

With hindsight, it’s probably easy to make a case for Argo’s Best Picture win; sympathy with Affleck for his director nom snub, fatigue with the dry worthiness of frontrunner Lincoln, the unlikely scenario of a movie that can present Hollywood as a hero. It’s certainly no bar to recognition that Argo isn’t a great movie. It has a great premise, no doubt about that, of the “so far-fetched it has to be true” variety. But it drifts too far into “sexing-up” the material, which ultimately distances it from the best movies of the era that it is trying to ape.


Which is not to present a case that Argo should have been more accurate to the historical account of the rescue of six US diplomats from Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Fidelity has never borne much correspondence to quality in cinema, and what ultimately matters is the dramatic integrity of the finished film. Jimmy Carter seemed to get this, noting that he liked the movie but the rescue was 90% down to Canada (rather than the heroic CIA man who risks all). The problem arises where we can see the cogs and wheels of the Hollywood adaptation whirring and clicking away, creating a convenient conflagration of tension when a modicum would have served better.


The opening sequence, showing the escalating tensions that gave rise to the storming of the US Embassy in Iran is superb; tense and frightening, with the vulnerability of the staff made believably palpable by Affleck. And the partly storyboarded, potted history of Iran makes for a neat little introduction. A fine cast of non-stars (but mainly just-recognisable faces) has been assembled, encouraging an immersion on the part of the viewer only slightly tempered by the costume party attire and coiffeurs. Tate Donovan (Damages), Scoot McNairy (Killing Them Softly), Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice) and Clea DuVall (Carnivale) all make strong impressions as tensions within their isolated group simmer.


Nothing else can quite match these sections, although the Hollywood scenes prove to be immense fun and are highly quotable. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are having a ball (“Argofuckyourself”) as producer and make-up man respectively. It may be that Hollywood smart talk writes itself, but their dialogue is no less funny for that (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit”, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA”).  Arkin, in particular, is on a late-stage career roll, proving generally to be the memorable presence in otherwise middling fare. Maybe Goodman’s given his agent a kick up the arse, as he is suddenly getting the pick of supporting roles again following a mostly forgettable post-millennium decade. There’s also a scene where Arkin options the Argo script from Richard Kind, who is as indelible as always.


Less all-together successful is the role of the CIA, which follows a fairly standard path (resourceful exfiltration expert goes ahead with his crazy-but-daring scheme against the direct orders of his superiors), despite the odd witty line (“This is the best bad idea we have, sir”). As with the broke-backed Zero Dark Thirty, our CIA protagonist is given a moment of ridiculously OTT gross insubordination (“Do your fucking job!”). He also has some ripe, over-written dialogue to contend with, comparing exfiltration to abortions. And, as with Killing Them Softly, Affleck feels the need to have a TV set on in the corner of the room in each scene showing coverage of the crisis (in Killing it was the 2008 election).  It’s curious to see a movie where the CIA is established unquestionably as heroic (when did that last happen?), even if admits to the US’s involvement in the bringing to power of the Shah of Iran. Maybe this slight tonal discomfort results in the feeling that these are merely actors playing Spooks, or maybe it’s a consequence of a film playfully lifting the veil on moviemaking.


There’s little doubt that Affleck does a lousy job of making his hero's family life interesting; this aspect seems shoehorned in, to give Tony Mendez a semblance of a character arc (no one worried about Woodward and Bernstein needing fleshed-out backstory in All the President’s Men). There is the smallest sliver of relevance to the main story, in that the inspiration for the fake movie as a means to smuggle out the Embassy officials comes from watching TV with his son. But I don’t think it justifies an otherwise clumsy estranged husband and father subplot (I was hoping that, when Mendez arrives at his wife's house at the end and asks "Can I come in?", her reply would be "Argofuckyourself"). We even get a corny shot of him contemplating his wedding ring as he stashes it before going on assignment. Affleck is fine; at first I suspected vanity casting, but Mendez as a character is more a facilitator of the action than fully formed (making the family plot all-the-more extraneous). The film is littered with fine actors in small-ish roles, and Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek and Titus Welliver also deserved more screen time.


It’s in the final act that things begin to fall apart, as Affleck is unable to resist overegging the pudding with every scrap of tension he can muster (all those cuts away at crucial moments, to the piecing together of the shredded photos of the embassy staff, of flights being approved just in the nick of time etc) when really all he needed was the scene in which Scoot McNairy comes into his own and "sells" the film to their interrogators. Once we reach the point where the Revolutionary Guard is chasing the escapees’ Swissair flight along the runaway, we know that Affleck has forsaken any pretence at restraint and is content to throw anything into the mix he can.


But, as a director, he is improving with each film. There may be a bit too much of the student in his approach at present (studying Heat for The Town, All the President’s Men for this) and there’s something very literal about the way he attacks his material, but the results feel relatively seamless. Here, in particular, he manages the shifts in tone from life threatening claustrophobia to broad La-La-Land gags without fracturing the story as a whole.


Affleck has been compared to Sidney Lumet for his story-first, unimposing approach but I don't see him getting there quite yet; there's a surface gloss absence from Lumet's best work (there’s always a slight whiff of artifice to big moustaches and bad hair, like it’s a ‘70s theme night rather than an authentic milieu), and Ben needs to get past the urge to cast himself or little brother regardless of whether it suits the subject matter.


Argo was produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and was at one point considered as a directing project for one of them. I like that they have an eye for interesting and unusual historical/political material (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Syriana, The Ides of March) and the upcoming The Monuments Men looks to follow directly in Argo’s path (little-known but compelling historical incident, no doubt much-embellished, with appealing actor-director lead and ensemble cast). So far, though, they haven’t quite scored a home run with anything they’ve shepherded to screen. For all that Argo is an exciting and amusing ride, there isn’t much substance beneath the surface. It ends up more Sydney Pollack than Alan J Pakula.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***