Sunday, October 28, 2012

You Oughta Be in Pictures (Argo)

The most haunting moment I've ever seen Ben Affleck deliver as an actor comes at the end of Chasing Amy: his back to the camera, having parted ways with Joey Lauren Adams, there's something about his hunched-over, defeated body language in that moment that's surprisingly moving. It has since occurred to me that most of Affleck's best moments in front of the camera have been with women, and his near-deferential air with actresses (and not just J-Lo, who has always demanded deference) has become his best quality behind it.

With Amy Ryan and Michelle Monaghan in Gone Baby Gone, then Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively in The Town, Affleck is the rare male director attuned to the nuances of his female performers without a hint of sadism or masochism. Argo doesn't have quite the same level of memorable female characters - it's more of a guy's picture, with Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin heading the cast - yet it still offers the best role for Clea Duvall in eons. She plays one of six Americans who in 1979 managed to flee the takeover of the embassy in Tehran and eventually escaped the country. I haven't seen Duvall in a movie since her memorable bit part as the prison witness who offers a key lead near the end of Zodiac, yet as always, she plays her character with total conviction. There's also an impressively tremulous performance from the strawberry-blonde Kerry Bishe as another of the escapees, and a good scene with the poker-faced Sheila Vand as an Iranian servant who may or may not reveal to the authorities that her employer, the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), is harboring the six. Even with extras, like the terrified woman who is captured at the embassy, Affleck never lingers on the moment with anything resembling the Male Gaze. He attempts to treat everybody with respect.

I wish I could say the rest of the movie was as refreshing. Looking back at my review of The Town, I see that I praised the film in spite of its being "a compendium of cliches,"so why am I panning Argo for offering more of the same? Maybe it's because a true-to-life story brings out my bullshit detector, makes me less inclined to grade on a curve. Although I am not overly literal with historical facts, and I understand that movies need drama, conflict and tension to hold our interest, there is still a difference between a film that develops these elements plausibly and organically and a film that blatantly tacks them on. The preposterous third-act of Argo begins with CIA operative Tony Mendez (Senor Affleck) having a Dark Night of the Soul, because the weenie bureaucrats back home in the States have pulled the plug on his crackpot plan to whisk the American Six out of Iran under the guise of being a Canadian film crew. Following a long, drunken evening where Mendez tours the city to the stirring tune "Freedom Isn't Free," and an awkward rendition of "Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You," Gentle Ben in the morning calls his boss (Bryan Cranston) and tells him that by golly they're going for it anyway. On the way to the airport, he explains to the Six that the Tehran Airport will be just like a Ron Howard movie, a hackneyed situation at every turn: no reservations for their flight the first time they're checked, then suddenly they're in the system the second; the obstacles placed in front of Hollywood movie-people John Chambers (Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Arkin) on the way to a ringing telephone; the wimpiest hostage who comes through with a convincing description of the movie to the Revolutionary Guard at the final checkpoint; the stalled clutch on the airport shuttle on the way to the plane; and a climactic chase on the runway so madcap it lacks only the army of monkeys from Crystal Skull.

That movie buffs are familiar with these cliches only adds to their admiration, however, the more reality-based, practical-minded of them comparing Argo to 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. While Affleck is clearly fond of those films, he, unlike Pollack and Pakula, is gun-shy about truly hurting his characters or troubling the audience. Argo is comparably fair-minded about the Middle East to other contemporary movies, blaming the U.S. for its handling of the Shah, yet nests this perspective in a chase narrative so textbook an exec like Griffin Mill would approve. ("Political doesn't scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.") Argo co-opts Alan Rudolph's pitch at the beginning of The Player down to a 'T': Affleck has made a movie that is "politely politically radical, but it's funny...and it has a heart in the right spot. It's a funny political thing. And it's a thriller too, all at once." Argo also departs from 70s cinema by emphasizing American ineffectualism and self-interest over conspiracy. I do believe that that view is closer to how it all went down; but it's also why I part ways with the comparison.

Ever since Adaptation, the more extreme cinephiles have eagerly plunged down the rabbit-hole with "meta" readings of movies like Argo that are, even peripherally, about movies. For them, Argo resorts to cliches because Affleck deliberately aims to turn an important historical event into a B-thriller - a more charitable way of saying that he made the movie "bad on purpose." (The question that's always left dangling: Wouldn't that intent be a tad reductive?) Spike Jonze, of course, did make the third act of Adaptation intentionally terrible; pumping up the melodrama was Charlie Kaufman's way out of his own dilemma (the real Kaufman's and Cage's version) of adapting an "unfilmmable" book. We're talking about Iran here, not orchids, of course; so what's Affleck's excuse? Probably the fact that the real escape somehow made it through the airport without incident. I get that an easy flight home wouldn't be too compelling onscreen. But Affleck strikes me as far too earnest a klutz to be fully conscious of his own effects, much less that he's presenting them as any kind of wily ironic commentary.

Although I enjoyed Hugo and Inglourious Basterds, I would like to humbly suggest a lengthy moratorium on movies that are "Love Letters to Movies," or ringing endorsements of "The Power of Cinema." Both qualities have been somewhat mystifyingly attributed to Argo because, I guess, it weaves a bad Star Wars ripoff into its plot - nostalgic satire being rather toothless, yet still wish-fulfillment for fans of Affleck's buddy Kevin Smith who appreciate that Affleck, unlike Smith, can operate a camera. Yet because it has come to our attention - ad nauseum on Twitter and elsewhere - that the term "overrated" offends the delicate sensibilities of the Word Police, I will instead offer Argo the backhanded compliment that in its own boneheaded way I think it's kind of brilliant. Mainstream audiences don't give a damn about love letters to movies; they understandably want the hearts and flowers delivered solely to themselves. Argo provides this and more to casual moviegoers. It conjures a memory in a way that is relevant to the present, yet with a greeting-card-like sentiment that goes down easy for liberals and conservatives alike. It's a movie that knows how to push our buttons. I'm not a fan of the practice, but I have to half-respect a filmmaker who is aware that they're there, waiting to be pushed.


Jason Bellamy said...

"... a climactic chase on the runway so madcap it lacks only the army of monkeys from Crystal Skull."


Much like you, I have no problem with the film manipulating the facts for dramatic improvements. But ARGO tips into excess. (If the Six were liberated from an embassy in 2012, there would have been one final catastrophe when one of them learned that nothing on the airplane's snack menu was gluten free, and that transactions are credit card only.)

That said: When a film like this feels a need to resort to such excess, it cheapens the history in a way, as if the Americans had to be paraded through the bazaar (etc) for this to seem like Dangerous Stuff. For all the ways this is like a '70s film, that's certainly a way it isn't. Because by this design, it wouldn't have been enough for Woodward and Bernstein to have sprung a leak in Nixon's presidency in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN; they'd have had to show up on the White House lawn and shove an issue of the Washington Post into Nixon's hand while he was out walking the dog in his bathrobe.

All of that said: Affleck, like Howard, is certainly aware of the buttons. And if the final act of ARGO winds up being his worst offense of excess, he could make some damn fine films in the future.

Craig said...



PRESIDENT NIXON reads the WASHINGTON POST, fuming, muttering swear words, while his dog sniffs the lawn.

Suddenly, he looks up, surprised to see WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN standing before him, arms folded, smug smirks on their faces.

NIXON: What the hell are you two doing here?! How did you get past the Secret Service?!

WOODWARD: You can't stop the truth.

BERNSTEIN: (sarcastically) Mister President!

Satisfied, they turn and strut to the helicopter. A PILOT starts up the whirlybird as they climb in. Nixon chases after them.

NIXON: (shaking his fist) You assholes! You guttersnipes! I'll fix you! You won't get away with this! You'll see! They don't call me Tricky Dick for noth-

Nixon stops, looks down, and sees his dog peeing on his pants leg.

Woodward and Bernstein, flying overhead, high five.