Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

Ben Affleck's Argo isn't as emotionally profound or thematically complex as his previous works Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but it's plenty all its own--a meat-and-potatoes, no-nonsense thriller remarkable for its unlikely premise and outre details. The situation (six Americans hiding in the heart of Tehran during the height of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) is impossible enough; the solution (disguising all six as members of a Canadian film crew doing preproduction work on a science-fantasy movie) lifts the story to a whole other level, the kind that makes you want to exclaim "this would make a terrific film!"

And lo and behold--

Kudos to Affleck for playing it straight, for (as he puts it) presenting details as they (more or less) were, without too much comic exaggeration or overt mugging so that the humor emerges from the material, in fragile balance with the grimness of the situation--a grimness driven home by the scene where hero Tony Mendez (Affleck playing the lead), being driven through Tehran's city streets, catches a glimpse of a man hung from the end of a high crane. Kudos to Affleck for the effective inserting of unforgettable video footage (the students storming the US embassy) and archival photo images (the burning of an American flag, the aforementioned crane hanging) into the story. Kudos again to Affleck for trying to play fair with the Iranian people by beginning the film with a summary of recent history, outlining just why they're so unhappy with the United States--the intro helps add a texture of ambivalence to the proceedings, as we witness the heroic efforts expended to extricate people from a circumstance their own country's meddling helped bring about. The effort may not satisfy everyone, and when you think about it may not really be enough, but he did make the attempt.   

Perhaps the film's best scenes take place not in Tehran but in Los Angeles; the satire on Hollywood wheeling and dealing is about as sharply observant and hilarious as one assumes an insider like Affleck can make it.

The latter half has Affleck's Mendez entering Iran and trying to shape his six terrified charges into something like a film crew; the finale is pure Hollywood hokum, but done so pulse-poundingly well you can't help but be caught up anyway. Affleck in an interview did defend the additional embroidery as being what Mendez and his fellow conspirators were probably thinking might happen while they attempt escape, not necessarily what actually happened

Critics have noted a similarity between this and the thrillers of Alan J. Pakula, or Sidney Lumet. I don't know--this is somewhat more bizarre than almost anything they've done (Lumet did do Network--but that's more a Paddy Chayefsky film than anything). The film might have benefited from a more wayward, character-focused approach: the suggestion made in the Wired article that helped inspire the film, for instance, that the six really got into their roles, took elaborate measures to change their hairstyles and appearances, started to inhabit their assigned profiles the way Method actors do. Jonathan Demme, a master at eccentric Americana, might have taken to the challenge of suggesting this--think odd genre-bending efforts like Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Citizen's Band, or his masterpiece Melvin and Howard, where people assume roles distinct from their own personalities, the film itself starts to assume a whole other identity, and the plot as a result starts to deflect and detour, like a mis-hit cue ball, in unpredictable and often comic (but not always) directions. The effect would be so much more courageous, so much more strange, but still within the confines of a persuasive realism (think an American Jean Renoir). Affleck, alas, chooses the straightforward path a la Pakula and Lumet; well done, but it could have been so much more than what it is. 

Perhaps my biggest reservation with regards to a more or less terrific film is the ommission of the true details about the faux film itself. Argo wasn't just any science fantasy, but a script based on one of science fiction's best-loved novels, Roger Zelazny's Hugo Award-winning Lord of Light. Science fiction enthusiast Barry Ira Geller had optioned Zelazny's novel and brought together some heavyweight talents--Ray Bradbury; Buckminster Fuller; Planet of the Apes makeup artists John Chambers and Maurice Stein; the inimitable Jack Kirby as conceptual artist--in a quixotic attempt to make what at that time was considered the most expensive science fiction epic ever made ($50 million, an unprecedented amount).

Sadly, the project fell apart (it didn't help that Geller had zero experience at film producing, or that one of the backers was a con artist). John Chambers--who knew Tony Mendez--eventually used the script and drawings as basis for the elaborate cover story for the Iran rescue mission.

As you might note from the artwork above, at one point Geller was actually proposing a $400 million theme park called Science Fiction Land. The park, based on Zelazny's ideas of free technology and built on the film's leftover sets, would feature guards flying about in jet packs; a thousand-lane bowling alley with robot attendants; a thirty-eight story high Ferris Wheel; Vegas-style "Pavilions of Joy;" and a holographic zoo.
Affleck suggested that the movie was a discarded studio script for a Star Wars-style science-fantasy movie, with blatant copies of Chewbacca and Artoo Detoo walking around the set. The truth is much stranger: a masterpiece from one of science fiction's most eloquent writers, realized in a series of gorgeous drawings by a giant in graphic art.  If I were an Iranian Republican Guard, I too might be distracted by the beauty and vividness of these drawings.

Affleck must have thought the Science Fiction Land subplot too interesting and complex to include in his film and instead opted for a few cheap shots at Star Wars knockoffs, which is unfortunate; I liked the knockoffs better than the source material, especially Battle Beyond the Stars, which was a knockoff of both Star Wars and Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai (ironically Star Wars itself is a knockoff of another Kurosawa epic, The Hidden Fortress)). The real script and drawings might have given the film a surreal touch and help introduce a second theme, about resurrection and renewal and the power of the self-image (all key themes in Lord of Light)--but that's just me.
Come to think of it--did I say the story of Argo would make a terrific film? Maybe so; not just the Iran rescue end, but the whole story, science fiction novel, theme park, scam artists and all.

And lo and behold, it just might



Curious Adventurer said...

Hi Noel,
I watched Argo with my entire family on my birthday. I made it a point that everyone cleared their calendars just for that movie night. We all enjoyed the movie. And reading your blog post about the true Argo is fascinating! By the way...my husband, who recalls the historical event, says that Affleck's movie didn't address the fact that -- sadly -- the military attempt to rescue the embassy hostages (not the 6) was actually a failure.

Noel Vera said...

The failed military rescue everyone knows about, so the filmmakers probably didn't deem it necessary. It should have at least been mentioned, tho.