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Argo (2012)

November 17, 2012 Leave a comment

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!

John Goodman Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck celebrate a great script

 

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.

The escapees talk golden turkeys with the Revolutionary Guards

 

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.

 

For the record, Argo won the Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Similarly, Argo won the 2013 Golden Globe Awards for Best Film and Best Director.

 

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Watching this film prompts the question of why we watch films. It would be too easy to start and stop with the idea that films are something we find amusing or diverting. This would pitch the expectation at a level equivalent to something relatively light and frothy. While it would not deny the possibility of some intellectual weight, the “intelligence” of the script or the performances would be less than obvious, perhaps something we might only pick up in the post mortem when the other ideas had been fully explored. Yet Gone Baby Gone manages the clever trick of being a very sophisticated exploration of a moral dilemma and entertaining, i.e. it has people investigating a kidnapping and shooting at each other (or into the air at one point). So, in the conventional sense, it’s pandering to an audience that likes thrillers while inviting them to look beyond the superficial action and see something more interesting to talk about in the pub afterwards.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan consider whether to take the case

 

As an example, let’s take a brief look back at a previous morality tale. The Accused (1988) has Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) raped by multiple attackers. The point of the film is to explore the gray area of liability for spectators who cheer on the rapists. If the original producers were to make a sequel, they might suppose Sarah is pregnant and proposes to have an abortion. Relying on his religiously inspired moral stance against abortion, one of the rapists asserts his paternal rights and petitions the court for an injunction to prevent the abortion. Well, we all know the action would fail. While the child is still a part of the mother’s body, it’s her right to determine what should happen. Fathers have no status when it comes to deciding the fate of their potential children. This is not to say there may be local laws controlling the legality of the abortion but, for the purposes of our potential drama, let’s assume that the victims of rape are allowed to abort.

Ed Harris and John Ashton try to get the truth out of Amy Ryan

 

If someone were to make this sequel, it would run the risk of being preachy on an inflammatory issue. In many countries, abortion is highly controversial and no matter what line the script took, it would upset one side of the polarised debate. So, coming back to Gone Baby Gone, it invites the viewers to consider a simple question. Assuming kidnapping a child is always a crime, are there circumstances in which the commission of this crime would be in the best interests of the child? This is a film based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane. It’s the fourth in the series featuring Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angela Genaro (Michelle Monaghan). The couple operate as private detectives, specialising in finding those who have disappeared. Against her better judgement, they take the case and immediately find themselves pitched into a difficult family situation. It’s immediately obvious the mother, Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is a hopeless addict who cares nothing for her daughter. As more evidence emerges, it appears this mother may have been involved in various criminal activities during which she came into possession of a large sum of money. A criminal interested in recovering this money would have a motive for kidnapping her daughter.

Morgan Freeman, the ever reliable performer

 

Once our private detectives get on the trail, they find two senior police officers more than helpful: Ed Harris and John Ashton. Their boss, Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) also seems to mellow as the investigation proceeds. A second child then goes missing and a tip comes to Patrick Kenzie identifying the possible abductor. This results in more co-operation with the police, but the outcome is not what Patrick might have hoped for. Since private detective heroes must always be competent, they eventually find the girl but must then decide what to do about it. If you take the view the interests of the child are the first and paramount consideration, you might condone the crime and leave her where she is. But if you trust the system, you might call in the police, send the kidnappers to jail, and wait for the state to declare the mother unfit and find a good foster home. Except who would trust the state with something as important? Only someone self-righteous who would always want to uphold the letter of the law. Which is why I mentioned the abortion issue. One side assets its right to impose its morality on the mother in the belief it knows best. Here our two private detectives get to decide what’s best for the child. For those of you who like to follow loose ends, the question of what happened to the kidnapped child is explained by Dennis Lehane in Moonlight Mile, published in 2010.

Dennis Lehane, author of Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and Mystic River

 

Gone Baby Gone is elegantly adapted for screen and directed by Ben Affleck making an auspicious debut behind the camera. Although there’s not a little nepotism in the casting of Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie, the result is impressive. Similarly, Ed Harris puts in one of his better performances, the two actors standing out in what is otherwise an ensemble cast — sadly, Michelle Monaghan is not given much to do as Angela Genaro. This is more at the brain food end of the entertainment scale but, by my standards, that make it one of the better films of the last decade. It should also be said that Dennis Lehane is a consistently impressive author and, if you have not already done so, you should read his books.

 

For a review of another film directed by Ben Affleck, see Argo.

 

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