7 November 2012

ARGO- Review

Along with "for your consideration" and "the winner is...", there's one phrase that you won't hear the end of until the coming awards season is done with, and that's "based on a true story". The artistic licence that can be taken with material from real life events is certainly apparent in Argo, the latest directorial outing for Ben Affleck, but it also helps that the details of the mission that inspired the film, which were declassified by President Clinton's government in 1997, are already interesting.

Set during the Iran hostage crisis, Affleck also stars in the film, as CIA extraction specialist Tony Mendez. He becomes instrumental in a frantic mission to rescue six diplomats, who have avoided being captured at the American embassy, only to become stranded in Tehran. Inspired by the popularity of Star Wars, Tony enlists an Oscar-winning make-up artist and a veteran movie producer to construct a cover that will allow them to rescue the diplomats without alerting the militants or the Iranian authorities- a fake sci-fi movie that is undertaking a foreign location shoot.

Affleck opens the film with the "Big W" Warner Bros logo, which prefaced the studio's films in the 1970s and early 1980s, in an affectation that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Looking at Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the director has a couple of trademarks- one of them is a distinctly non-tourist friendly depiction of Boston and its people, and a penchant for the kind of muscular, grown-up drama that is seldom seen outside of awards season, in a market that privileges teenage boys. To the latter, some have said that Affleck makes films that feel like they were made in the 1970s, and while the "Big W" seems to be an answer to that, the retro feel of Argo largely strengthens the case of his previous two films, for bringing back proper dramas in a big, bad way.

However, as well as being a macho espionage thriller, Argo has a refreshing lightness of touch in its re-telling of the fake movie production, and the state of affairs within the CIA that led to it being green-lit. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play John Chambers, the effects artist behind Planet of the Apes, and producer Lester Siegel, respectively, and they make a hugely enjoyable comic double act. Unlike certain other films focused inside the industry, the film has no insular delusions about how interesting it might be. Although much is made of the inscrutable inner workings of the studio system, Affleck isn't ever trying to make his mates laugh- the studio gubbins is interesting both to those who are interested in filmmaking, and to the general audience, who understand the stakes resting on this silly, fake movie production.

In another performance that proves how much better he is directing himself, than being directed, Affleck's Tony is a subdued constant between the tonal shifts. He's not of the Bond mould, even though Lester jokingly refers to him as 007 at one point, but he's equally calm and collected in the heart of revolutionary Iran as he is in the Hollywood script readthrough early in the film. The second half of Argo really ramps up the tension, with the eternally awesome Bryan Cranston giving a great performance as Tony's CIA superior back home, as part of the film's many inter-cut sequences. I was surprised to learn that editor William Goldenberg's previous film was Transformers: Dark of the Moon, because his work here is, by vast contrast, the best film editing that I've seen all year, with its intense, claustrophobic quality in the final act.

Like The Town, the "macho" part is operative in the "macho espionage thriller", and there are less roles for women than in either of Affleck's previous films. It's not a problem in and of itself- it would be far worse to marginalise or misrepresent women, as some will argue about the film's portrayal of foreigners. Most of the Iranians in the film are reduced to angry outbursts during tense moments, which are not intended as inarticulate, but to show the danger that these English-speaking fugitives are in when they enter those situations. But there's a over-arching theme about why Tony's cover works- because it's based around a movie, and cinema is the international language. There are several moments in Argo to melt the heart of even the sternest cineaste, because it's one of those films that appreciates the importance of the medium, without ever getting all high-faluting about it.

Argo is a film that benefits from having little knowledge about the historical events that it depicts, and it's not because of any unfair representation that Affleck may or may not have incurred. It's a thrilling and funny representation of a geo-political crisis, and I enjoyed it immensely while not knowing exactly how it would all pan out. The odds on its chances of winning big at the Oscars are more likely down to clinical factors, like the Academy's favour for actor-directors, the retro atmosphere, or the patriotic American tone. But like both of Affleck's previous films, it's far more interesting in the viewing of it than any of that ancillary bumph, and it's another sterling effort from a great director.

Argo is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen
Argo, why not share your comments below? Has anyone considered the fact that it's a movie about making movies, starring John Goodman, might hurt its chances of winning Best Picture, so close to last year's winner?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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