It’s interestingly fortuitous that I get to see Skyfall and Argo (2012) back-to-back (such are the vagaries of film distribution) because the juxtaposition prompts me to think about two very different approaches to making a thriller. One comes from a major franchise and, although the casting of the hero has been flexible over the five decades of its existence, the plan has always been to construct a story around whichever star is playing the leading role. Like most series, the casting of the lead is therefore critical. Find someone the audience wants to see on screen for most of the two or more hours of showing time, and you probably have a winner. The tried and trusted formula is rolled out. Everyone basks in the charisma of the star and the studio banks the money. The other approach has an original story and draws on the potential strength of an ensemble cast where no-one is going to be completely dominant and everyone will contribute meaningfully to the success of the whole. Well, in Argo’s case, the actual story is original — sometimes fact is stranger than fiction — but the plot is full of clichés known to build tension. However, the whole is carried off with such style and panache that I can forgive the screenwriter, Chris Terrio for trotting out all the potboiler elements, and director, Ben Affleck for filming them. This film is terrific fun and, ignoring convention, it makes Skyfall feel dated and slow-moving. In saying this, I single out Ben Affleck for particular praise. All too often, actors who direct themselves in the leading role fall into the trap of trying to manipulate the film to make themselves look good. Although he plays Tony Mendez, the agent who thinks up this plan for the rescue of the six Americans hiding out in Iran, he’s essentially faceless. Whenever another cast member can speak, that’s what happens. Whenever the camera can realistically look somewhere else, we see the other actors at work. This is a particularly selfless film and all the better for it!
So we start off in cinéma vérité style with a brief history lesson and then watch recreated and original mob scenes as revolutionary crowds storm the US embassy in Tehran and arrest everyone they find inside. There are many instances when television screens show what I take to be original footage of real events plus snatches of interviews with the talking heads of the day. Insofar as this is a fictionalised version of real-world events, the film tries to locate itself in the time and gives the modern audience a sense of what it was like to live through this difficult period. Six of the staff manage to leave before the mob breaks into the main building and they find a hiding place in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). This gives both the American and Canadian government a headache. How can these six be rescued with the least political fallout? The answer is provided by Tony Mendez who puts together a movie proposal in Hollywood and goes to scout locations in Iran with a party of seven. Since six more people than actually arrived will be leaving, the rescue depends on the chaotic state of the paperwork at the airport. The theory is that the Revolutionary Guards will be confused by all the documentation in support of the film project and wave them through without the matching landing passes. It’s at this point we get to two wonderful performances from Alan Arkin and John Goodman. I’ve already booked my seat for a sequel showing these two improve on the Get Shorty model of making a Hollywood movie without spending any money. They light up the screen with one of the best double-acts of the year, finding a script that fits Iran as a location, and pitching it to generate credible buzz in the trade and news media. With the movie greenlighted, Tony Mendez takes off and meets the six.
What happens after he gets to Tehran are the usual problems of some of the embassy staff being understandably sceptical of this plan, a maid in the Canadian household who may give them away, loss of confidence in Washington, the Hollywood team being delayed on their way back to the office to take the vital call from the airport, and so on. As I said earlier, we see all the usual devices on display to encourage us to be interested and excited. It should all fall flat, yet it remains one of the best thrillers of the year so far. I think it just has a nice sense of humour, great timing, and a consistently excellent cast.
This being an American film, I need to make what’s now a fairly routine complaint that history is slightly different in certain key respects. I’m sure home audiences will not care that the positive contributions made by the British and New Zealand staff in Iran were actively omitted. Indeed, the British are libelled. It’s completely gratuitous to allege the US six were turned away by the British Embassy or any of its staff. But this is what we’ve come to expect from American films when they set out to do history. They do whatever makes Americans look good and who cares about the rest. So there you have it. Putting aside the issue of whether films pretending to be based on real events should accurately represent what happened, Argo should be a must-see for everyone who wants one of the best directed, best acted thrillers of the year. It’s a simple if slightly incredible tale, well told by a humble director as against the pretentious grandiosity of Skyfall which impresses but is, as William Baldwin would have it, a fairly empty vessel making a loud noise. People are already talking about Argo as a potential nominee for awards. At the very least, it deserves nomination.
More generally, see Should historical films be like documentaries?
For a review of another film by Ben Affleck, see Gone Baby Gone.
I’d like to start by thanking you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your latest work. It’s been interesting and stimulating to exchange ideas with you. First, a personal question. Like me, you’ve left your home turf for greener pastures elsewhere. Why have you made your home abroad?
That’s an easy one. I met a girl at college and I followed her to New York. It was a crazy, romantic notion because I had no job or any prospects and for my first three years in America I worked as an illegal in bars and various bookshops and at the odd construction site. It was a really happy time though. Leah and I were living on 50 dollars a week in a frightening apartment in ungentrified Harlem, but I was soaking up amazing material every minute of every day: crackheads and car thieves and cops and robbers. . . When I went to write Dead I Well May Be, it was very much a Speak Memory situation: I just let that stuff pour out of me.
In Falling Glass, your hero is one of the Pavee — a man with membership of a moving family. It’s a cultural allegiance and not tied to a single place. Does this also reflect your own view of the world?
I think so yes. Was it Auden who said that specious thing about betraying his country before his friends? Well I wouldn’t betray either. And I have a lot of countries now that I feel attached to: Ireland, England, Israel, America, Australia. I’ve got roots and friendships and deep memories in all those places. I’ve lived in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Coventry, Leamington Spa, London, Oxford, New York, Boston, Jerusalem, Denver, Melbourne and now Seattle. My allegiances are all mixed up. Of course I still go for Ireland in the rugby and Liverpool FC in the EPL. That will never change.
In Falling Glass, the hero becomes a defender of the weak and oppressed, prepared to use violence to ensure the safety of others. This would not be necessary if society had a law enforcement process that did not implicitly protect people of status — ironically a higher-profile issue today because of the furore over the apparently untouchable status of Jimmy Savile.
I can’t say I was surprised by either the Jimmy Savile or Lance Armstrong scandals. I think the rich and powerful get away with much much more than we will ever know. Truth is always stranger and more perverse than fiction. If a writer were to make up the Savile story it would be labelled ‘ridiculous’ by every editor in the business and not get published. Fiction writers need to work harder to catch up with reality it seems to me.
In the traditional British crime novel, the appearance of the body is always a shock to the small community on display, i.e. there’s an immediate identification of this as a crime scene where there’s been a breakdown in law and order. But Northern Ireland was a permanent crime scene for decades with an inevitable overlap between policing, politics and the terrorists. In such a society, what makes a good policeman?
In England, certainly in rural England, there are very few murders so it should be a shock. I remember the three years I was at Oxford there wasn’t a single murder anywhere in Oxfordshire, but on Inspector Morse (which was filming and playing at the same time) there was usually one, or quite often two or three, in a week. There was a large disconnect between reality and TV reality. In Northern Ireland in the late seventies and early eighties there was too much reality. Certainly too much for impressionable kids. I remember being stuck with my mother in central Belfast the night the Co-op was firebombed. I remember taking my American girlfriend (now wife) to the cinema and coming out to find the city on fire and under the control of masked paramilitaries who had set up burning tyre checkpoints everywhere. I remember the week the SAS assassinated an IRA hit team in Gibraltar and we watched live on TV as a mad man killed three mourners with hand grenades at the funeral; and just two days after that, two off-duty Signals corporals were lynched live in front of our eyes. Stuff like that went on all the time. You never get immune to it, but you do get numb, and I have to say that, in Belfast, the response was often black, very black, humour, some of which I’ve tried to capture in my books. I should emphasise that because I remember as a kid being surrounded by very dour sarcastic grown-ups with a very dry sense of humour. There was also a very strong sense of community in our housing estate that I miss now that I live in middle class suburbia. As kids we could walk into any house we wanted and have dinner there or borrow a book or just sit down with the family and play Monopoly or watch TV. And it was also paradoxically a time of great innocence too. We were always outside playing football or running up into the fields. Yes there was a civil war going on five miles away in Belfast, but we felt safe and loved and happy.
If the police officer is on the side of right, he or she will be pressured to ignore the real perpetrator, or to pin the crime on a false suspect.
So often those attempts at pinning evidence on a person the cops knew was the guilty party backfired because they weren’t guilty at all. In Northern Ireland this happened all the time as did jury tampering. In fact the latter got so bad that juries were abolished for all paramilitary cases and, instead, Continental-style, three judge courts were introduced.
In both Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground, the hero becomes a vigilante. Do you see the search for justice as personal redemption?
It may be an attempt at personal redemption but. . . The temptation to take justice into your hands is so strong that you have to be incredibly strong to resist it. It’s interesting that until very recently in human history murder was always taken care of by the victim’s relatives. Police forces have only been around for a century and a bit, but murder has been around for as long as humans have been walking the plains of Africa. In Ulster and places where Ulster people emigrated to (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, etc.) this tradition still lingers. The police are distrusted and kin are the ones who mete out natural justice.
Ah, but you’ve changed your mind. The heroes in Falling Glass and The Cold Cold Ground are not family. In Fifty Grand, your heroine is both a cop and family. Which view do you prefer: the blood feud or the dispassionate enforcer?
Oh I prefer to let the police do the solving and the bringing of justice. I wish everyone did but they don’t, at least not in places where there the idea of blood feud is still engrained in the culture. The book to read about this is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer: the section on the folkways of Ulster immigrants to America is eye opening.
The PSNI wants access to interviews given to the Boston College/Belfast Project by former IRA Old Bailey bomber Dolours Price. They claim Price gives a detailed account of how McConville was targeted, abducted from her 10 children, driven across the border, murdered and buried in secret late in 1972. What do you think of such work in an academic context?
It’s a very interesting case. It’s common knowledge in Belfast who gave the order to abduct Mrs McConville. Everyone knows who Delours Price is talking about but, setting aside a suit for libel, naming the man might jeopardize the entire Northern Ireland Peace Process because he is such an important and prominent figure in Republican circles. Once again I feel that Northern Ireland missed a trick by not having a South African style Truth Commission. That would have given a blanket amnesty to everyone involved in a Troubles offence who came forward and told the truth about what happened in the dark days of the seventies and eighties.
I’m not sure South Africa is a better country because it went through a “truth” process. More to the point, I don’t think anyone actively involved in the Troubles on any of the “sides” would have wanted to be honest about what they did.
Perhaps you’re right but at least South Africa drew a line under the whole process. In Northern Ireland these old cases are still lingering, are still a wound that hurts.
John Donne started the ball rolling with the idea that, “no man is an island. . every man is a piece of the continent. . .”. In our postmodernist times, we routinely accept the idea that we only understand the present by placing our “man” in his social context and then interrogating the past. We aim to learn about him by identifying the “facts” reported about him, determining whether they are salient and then forming them into an evidential pattern. In such archaeological diggings, sometimes we identify significant silences and they are just as eloquent as the apparent facts. Once we have all the available evidence, there’s always going to be an argument about what it tells us. Given all our current theories and and beliefs, it’s unlikely one interpretation is always going to be better than any others. That would be the triumph of prejudice. In the best objective sense, we should always be looking for explanations of the past that give the best fit with the “facts” as we have them. So, when searching for a reasoned way of resolving the debate, it may be necessary to conclude one interpretation is right because all the others are wrong. As Sherlock Holmes used to say, “. . .when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Ah, the “truth” — such a complicated concept in these relativistic times.
Such are the games played by those who put together the plots of the better detective stories. When it comes to the blend between current reality and history, I don’t think anyone has more consistently hit the bullseye than Anthony Price. His early books are masterful in their exploration of the relationship between people and their past. He specialised in the construction of meditative dialogues as the lead characters discussed how they should view and then solve their problems which were always rooted in relevant history. So, in The Labyrinth Makers, a missing Dakota aircraft resurfaces. It had been presumed lost at sea shortly after the end of the WWII, so to find it at the bottom of a recently drained lake is disconcerting. That it then triggers interest from the Russian intelligence service brings our series hero, David Audley, into play. If you have not read this book, you should. It won the Silver Dagger Award in 1971.
All of which brings us to Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland (Minotaur Books, 2011). This is the eleventh police procedural featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla so, in novelist terms, this is a mature partnership. They know each other well and, together with their Serious Crime team, enjoy tight mutual loyalty. We start off with what might look a random crime. An elderly American tourist is literally thrown under a bus when walking back from the Chelsea Flower Show to her hotel. There’s no obvious motive of a robbery gone wrong. The first theory is mistaken identity yet no-one can suggest whom she might resemble and so justify death. Our heroes are just getting started with the investigation looking at her hotel in Chelsea when the rich Russian who lives next door is also murdered. In a hastily convened meeting between the police and the Intelligence Services, it’s now suggested that our American might look like the dead Russian’s mother. Quite why this has prompted the death of the Russian son is not explained, but it becomes a kind of official assumption for those at the meeting.
Needless to say, our heroes are sceptical. Well, that should be Kathy Kolla who’s sceptical. Brock has succumbed to a mystery bug and the team is covering for his absence while he tries to sleep it off. The problem, of course, is how an elderly American woman might be related to a Russian multi-millionaire. This is where the history comes into play. At first, Kathy Kolla is on her own but she comes across a youngish Canadian attending a conference in London. He’s staying at the same hotel as the dead American and proves to have forensic document skills. In due course, he’s recruited as an independent expert and begins his own parallel investigation. As Brock slowly gets back on his feet, the investigation goes through various crises and changes in manpower. Slowly, they begin to sense the wider picture and, after a trip to America, they have a much better idea of how the two victims may be linked.
Except, of course, the fact a link has been found between the two victims does not explain why they were killed nor by whom. This drives them back into the history and, when some bones come to light, they finally get the answer. Anthony Price would approve of this plot! It’s beautifully managed. What may initially look contrived ends up perfectly explained. We even get a little more background on David Brock as some of his own history resurfaces in an unexpected way. In Chelsea Mansions, Barry Maitland has produced one of the best detective/police procedurals of the last year. If you see it on a shelf, grab a copy and reserve the time necessary to read it. You will not be disappointed.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt is something of a chimaera in that we have a travelogue with political attitude. As a yardstick, my favorite travel writer is Jan Morris. When she walks you through a town or city, she’s giving you a fully realised insight into her own experience, picking from the details to reveal the occasional incongruous note. Troy Parfitt is both more and less ambitious. Rather than a city, he aspires to survey an entire people by travelling to all the provinces of modern China. In some senses, therefore, this becomes more a journey reported by anecdote than through a detailed journal. Sadly, this task was performed more elegantly in Coast to Coast by Morris, but this book is nevertheless an interesting effort, in the main because the writing style is engaging and betrays a man of sophisticated sensibilities.
So, after a short introduction, we’re off on the first leg of our whistle-stop tour through China by deviating through Hong Kong for a permit, and then on to Macau and Guangzhou. For the first fifty pages or so, there’s a reasonably entertaining summary of our traveller’s experiences as he plumbs unsuspected depths and comes up with the slightly seamy side of life. As to the man, he admits a brief experiment with opium when younger — it’s always better to discuss the Opium Wars when you have some personal insight into what they were fighting about. Now heading for Hong Kong, he elects to stay in Chungking Mansions, one of the slightly more notorious places. His idea of a “good place to start” is to explore a red light area in the hope of rediscovering Nam Kock Hotel and The World of Suzie Wong. From this you will understand this is not a travel book in which our intrepid explorer moves without preplanning, sometimes landing on his feet and sometimes having adventures. Troy Parfitt knows where he’s going and has expectations about all the must-see places if you want to do all aspects of the history of China.
However, quite early on, we see signs of real attitude in his summary of China’s history as it bears on the status of Hong Kong and, later, Sun Yat-sen’s life. I have no particular brief for truth which, in most cases affecting China, is always a matter of opinion based on which sources you happen to have read. But Troy Parfitt seems somewhat contemptuous of China as a country and of a man whom some describe as the “Father of the Nation”. Indeed, referring back to the title of the book, our author has found evidence of China’s impoverished state and confirms a prejudice that the weaknesses he observes will prevent China from making a positive mark on the world. Motives are always complex and I wonder whether this book is genuinely inductive. We have observations of the world and then there’s extrapolation to generalisations. It’s a form of probabilistic reasoning. The issue as this book unwinds is whether the inductions are weak or strong, i.e. they offer genuine insights into the truth of what China is really like and what that means if China actively follows a path intended to lead to hegemony.
Then we’re off and running again, this time to Guilin and Yangshuo, then on to Kunming and Xoaguan. It’s all a little perfunctory with a few snapshots of people met and scenes observed. The only consistency comes from the reinforcement of the lack of cleanliness and the sheeplike quality of the people who kowtow to authority figures and lead (un)quiet lives. The tone doesn’t change when we get to Tibet. Indeed, it turns into another history lesson. It’s curious to find the travelogue stop and start in this way. It feels as though the descriptive journal of a traveller must be subordinated to the author’s more general opinions reflected in these historical summaries. As it unfolds, the mixture loses some momentum and grows more serious in tone. The only moments I smiled came when he reports the comment of a US ex-pat in Beijing who thinks the Chinese more friendly than the French, and when he discovers the delights of the Tsingtao Brewery.
Whereas others might see China as a country trying to dig itself out of a pit, he only sees the pit. This gives the tenor of the descriptions a relentlessly monochrome view. Most places have black and white qualities at the extreme. When you visit or actually live there as an ex-pat, you try to inhabit the shades of grey in-between. That’s where there’s some hope and you can try to fashion a normality out of the cultural strangeness around you. This is a man who has spent some ten years as an ex-pat in Taiwan teaching English to the local Chinese and learning Mandarin in return, not something you do unless you find the experience reasonably convenient to continue. Yet, by the time he’s visited seventeen of the twenty-two provinces of China, he’s had enough. Curiously, he’s not only disillusioned with the mainland Chinese, but also out of sorts with the Taiwanese. He ends the book by returning to his native Canada. In a sense, his modern anabasis and consequent writing of the book give him an opportunity to reflect on his life. This is not to say his peregrination was militaristic, but it does acquire a veneer of hostility as it continues. Cultures are strange beasts. Often they lie supine and unobserved until you rouse them into life. Only at that point does the nature of the beast come clearly into focus. For Troy Parfitt, prolonged exposure to the Confucianism implicit in the Chinese psyche has proved too much. He wants to feel comfortable again and decides this means reimmersion in a Western academic environment, surrounded by people with whom he feels more immediate affinity.
This is not to say his view of China or its people is wrong. I would not presume to make such a judgement. But I feel he writes without a sense of balance, i.e. the inductions are weak. Books are at their most persuasive when they rehearse a proper set of arguments for and against a proposition. When the author arrives at a reasoned conclusion, we can see the force of the winning argument. This feels more like a book written by a man who’s falling out of love with a culture. He’s convincing himself of the rightness of his decision to leave and go back to his roots. Hence, he paints the picture with a broadly negative brush. If you want to read a book telling you why not to visit China and/or what mistakes were made by leaders in its past, this is the book for you. The title, Why China Will Never Rule the World, sets the tone, the editorialisation is consistent, and you will not be disappointed by the finished product. But if you’re looking for nothing more than an engaging travelogue through parts of China and around Taiwan, or you want a book analysing the history of the late Qing Dynasty and the last century, find something else to read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As a completely irrelevant aside, this is the first occasion on which I have ever seen an author not reserve copyright from the year of publication. The first edition is shown as published in 2011, but Mr. Parfitt only wishes his copyright to run from 2012.