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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.

 

End of Watch (2012)

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The question that lives in the mind some hours after leaving the cinema is what constitutes entertainment. If I wanted to see real life, I could sit on a street corner and watch it walk and drive by. Admittedly it wouldn’t be as exciting as in this film, but it would pass the time. So I just spent 109 minutes watching two youngish officers in End of Watch (2012) patrol around some of the more violent streets in South Central LA. Although it starts off with a car chase and, from the camera mounted on the black-and-white’s windscreen, we see the occupants of the chased car emerge with guns blazing when they are cornered, this is not completely typical of their days. Yes, there are moments of action but, equally, they simply drive around and keep the peace. This means telling people to turn down the volume on their music if they’re having a party, or remonstrating with an angry man who’s been threatening the mailman. Their view of the world is passive-aggressive. The law of search-and-seizure does not permit random stops. The team has therefore developed a number of strategies to tiptoe around the law with pretexts for the stop. It’s the same with entering houses without a search warrant. If they are able to see a possible offence from outside, they force their way in. Otherwise, they simply drive around, drink endless coffees and Red Bulls, and talk.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña at home

 

It’s the talking that features. If I was asked what the film is about, I would say the screenwriter/director David Ayer is interested in studying them as individuals and a team. They’ve been together for seven or eight years. Brian Murphy (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a marine. Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is a second-generation Mexican, not as well educated, but passionate about his work. Despite their cultural differences, they have grown close. Unofficially, they relate to each other as brothers with Brian adopted into the extended Mexican kin group. In the cliché favoured by the so-called buddy movies, they’re like family.

 

So the question remains. Is it entertaining to spend almost two hours watching two men drive around in a car together, emerging every now and again to exchange fire with local criminals or save kids from a burning building? Ah yes, you see the catch. There are moments of excitement in the midst of the pervasive boredom of their lives. If they wanted, they could game the system and never get into any situation where their lives might be at risk. Only their feet or backsides would grow calluses. But, whether it’s their professionalism or a desire to “make a difference”, they always seem to be leading from the front. Sadly, this means they are noticed by the local representatives of a Colombian drug cartel. First, they tell them the music is too loud, then they make one of their stops of a “suspected” vehicle and find a small quantity of drugs and some gold-plated weapons. Then there’s a house full of people. But it’s the house they enter near the end that causes the real problem. They actually chose this job because it looked really boring. A daughter who was worried about her mother. Yes, such public service jobs always carry that extra element of commitment.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña leaving home for work

 

Anyway, back to this recurrent question. . . Is a film that shares in the boredom of its characters’ lives a legitimate form of entertainment? No matter how much we learn about these fine, upstanding members of the community, no matter how much we might come to empathise with them, they are doing a shitty and dangerous job. At any moment, some individual high on drugs might attack them and get in a lucky blow, a gang member with anger management problems might shoot one in the head. As we sit in the cinema, we’re in no better position than the wives who have to stay at home and pretend their husbands will come home safe at the end of each shift. Well, we’re probably worse off than the wives because we have to watch the dark shadows collect at the end of the screen as they drive around this neighbourhood. So what does that make the message of this film?

 

I think End of Watch as a phrase says it all. We have the chance to watch the lives and deaths of some police officers in LA. As the credits roll, it’s the end of this opportunity to watch. If there is a message, it’s that there will always be some people who will survive to carry on the fight. Some may retire from the force because they are disillusioned or afraid, some because they are permanently injured, and some because they are dead. But so long as we have a need for law enforcement, there will always be some people with enough courage to stand up for righteousness and carry on the fight. It could be inspiring but, in this particular film, there’s not a shred of passion in promoting propaganda to encourage us to sleep well in our beds. There’s a dry, factual quality to the delivery and, to be honest, I was mostly bored. The inclusion of a few body parts and a little heroism fails to prevent the general feeling of depression. You can admire men like this and bewail the awfulness of a society that allows itself to degenerate into this state, but films like this accentuate the negative without any obvious purpose. David Ayer could have delivered a film to provoke outrage and foster a political desire to leave the cinema and exert pressure on government to change. But I just felt like giving up and, despite the likeability of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, it’s not entertaining. As a final thought on the structure of the film. Much of the action is delivered through discovered footage from various cameras, some of which are part of a personal log being kept by Brian as a part of a part-time degree course. But there’s no consistency as to when the camera will switch from on-board and hand-held to third person. This is distracting and fails in what I take to be an intertexuality attempt to give the film some credibility as cinéma verité.

 

The Assault or L’assaut (2010)

When I was young, there was an experimental movement in film-making that we can now authoritatively call cinéma vérité. Both in true documentary and fictional forms, the director’s intention is to maximise the capture of reality on the screen. Some have believed the best way to do this is to hide the cameras. This would mean everything on the screen is unscripted and unrehearsed. All would, of course, be filtered through the director’s eye when it comes to cutting the raw images together and adding a soundtrack. But it would be “real life” on the screen. To a greater or lesser extent, other directors have moved away from this purist position depending on the extent to which they believe the known presence of the cameras affects the behaviour of those being filmed. Today we have “reality” shows on television where cameras follow groups of people in their “everyday” lives. We have been taught how to suspend disbelief given that many of those “captured” are behaving in a surprisingly uninhibited way. Ignoring the game-show formats, some of the more interesting are like Jersey Shore in which we watch people caught in an artificial situation. It’s a form of voyeurism albeit without the more overtly sexual content. Think of it being a voyeurism that breaches the usual presumption of privacy.

Vincent Elbaz as Thierry, a tired soldier stepping into the front line again

 

One of the features of all forms of reality filming is the use of the hand-held camera. This technique now appears in straight fiction where the intention is to heighten awareness of movement, to make the action feel more dynamic, if not real. One of the most interesting early examples of this style is The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which Gillo Pontecorvo made the film in the style of a documentary. Mostly shot in black-and-white, it’s considered one of the best of the early attempts to create a newsreel style portrayal of real events. Continuing in the theme of the conflict between Algeria and the occupying French, we now come to The Assault or L’assaut (2010), a recreation of the Christmas crisis in 1994 when four Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

 

There are several features which make this film by Julien Leclercq rather interesting. First, he knows his film will be compared to United 93 (2006) in which Americans were invited to confront a piece of their own history in the story of the real-life events on one of the planes hijacked on the 11th September. Both films carefully avoid sensationalising these events of national significance. What we might call melodrama has been limited. But, unlike Paul Greengrass, Julien Leclercq took the decision to include real newsreel footage. This takes us into the same territory occupied by Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Winterbottom uses both real and faked footage to enhance the sense of realism. The question, always, in this kind of film, is the extent to which it’s legitimate to fictionalise history. By definition, the moment you write a script, you are editorialising, deciding what to include or exclude, what emphasis to place on different events and characters. It’s so easy to lionise one side and demonise the other when it comes to stories about terrorism.

Aymen Saïdi as a man who passionately believes he is right

 

On balance, I think Julien Leclercq does a good job as director and joint scriptwriter with Simon Moutairou. The decades of conflict between France and Algeria showed both sides at their worst. That this film, as a French film, emerges with any sense of balance is a testament to the ability of a modern film-maker to forgive the enemies of his country’s past and to embrace both sides as warriors worthy of respect. I say this despite the lack of any background context for these events. I lived through this history with the Organisation de l’armée secrète’s campaign to destabilise the French government and frustrate the movement to independence eventually leading to the Algerian attacks on mainland France. I’m not sure whether this film would have benefitted from two minutes of historical introduction. Modern viewers are rather thrown into this story at the deep end knowing nothing of the background nor of the role of the French intervention force called GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale). Although we are now used to the idea of hijacking planes both to force governments to release political prisoners and to crash them into iconic buildings, I suspect a short introductory summary would have enhanced understanding of these events.

Mélanie Bernier, a victim of discrimination who still manages to tell the truth

 

The story takes three different strands. The first focuses on Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a senior member of the elite commando force called the GIGN. He’s under psychological pressure, finding it difficult to cope with his shoot-first, ask-questions-later role. The relationship with his wife and young child adds depth to the character. We then have Carole (Mélanie Bernier) who’s struggling under the appalling weight of sexist discrimination in the Foreign Ministry. She has done the research and understands the risks rather better than her complacent male bosses. But she’s also not wholly ethical, being prepared to offer money to one branch of the terrorist group in the hope this will encourage them to call off the hijacking. Then we have the four terrorists led by Yahia (Aymen Saïdi). They come over as committed but emotionally vulnerable. The scene when Yahia’s mother tries to talk him into giving up is particularly telling. In another place, at another time, these would be good men leading ordinary lives with their families. Because of the lack of historical context, we are left to guess at what would have driven them to engage in this grand gesture of defiance.

 

The film leads us through the initial stages of the hijack as the four terrorists pray together, then just drive on to the tarmac and board the plane. These were the days before airport security was improved. At first, the Algerian government refuses to allow the plane to leave but, when a French citizen is shot, the French government insists the plane is allowed to fly into France. Now the stage is set for the countdown to the assault. The majority of the passengers were Algerian nationals. The terrorists made no discrimination between innocent and guilty. Everyone on the plane was a hostage. Remarkably, most survived.

 

There are several features in the final stages of this sad event that remain unclear. Why was the plane allowed to move from where it was first parked in Marseille? Why did the terrorists not simply start killing all the passengers. Why did the GIGN not shoot the terrorists through the windows of the plane? Such questions do not detract from the power of how the operation was concluded. Insofar as anything can be considered a triumph emerging from such a tragedy, this is what happened.

 

I’m not convinced this is the most entertaining of films. It certainly has no Hollywood pretensions to lift morale and show the “good guys” winning. Shot for much of the time in a pseudo-documentary “black and white”, it desaturates both the colour and, to some extent, the characters so that we can focus on the events as they unfold. This is not about the people so much as about the immediacy of what actually happened. This gives The Assault or L’assaut a raw intensity of emotional power. It commands attention from start to finish. I emerged from the cinema feeling saddened that humans can do such terrible things but heartened that, sometimes, people respond well in difficult situations. For those who enjoy realism, this is as good a film in the style of cinéma vérité as you are likely to see for a long time.

 

For a more general discussion of what constitutes a documentary, see Should historical films be like documentaries?

 

Should historical films be like documentaries?

It seems we’re in an age where relativism prevails. Taking American Idol as our touchstone, no-one wants to be seen “judging” whether sensitive youngsters have a natural sense of rhythm and can actually sing in tune. In the cinema, the same problem persists. When it comes to other people’s cultural preferences, those of us who write reviews are allowed to think a film is rubbish, but we’re not supposed to say so. Paying customers have the right to queue up for dross if they choose. So, when it comes to reviewing films like The King’s Speech, we’re to look the other way when the history is rewritten. For the paying customer, it’s supposedly irrelevant that reality has been warped to fit the story the director wanted to tell. It’s like using a drone to take out a terrorist. All the collateral damage is an unfortunate side effect. In our case, the uninformed viewers will be even more misled if they believe what they see on the screen to be true. But what people think happened in the past is hardly important, is it? I mean, who cares if Lionel Logue’s major effort to help Bertie was not in a crumbling basement, but on a yacht taking the Duke to Australia where he was due to give a major speech. It’s far more dramatic to have it appear Logue’s primary input was to build Bertie up to make “the” big speech to rally the Empire for what was to become WWII. Indeed, the need to maximise the drama, on its own, makes the rewriting of the past all right. After all, no-one gets hurt in any real way.

 

Except, Colin Firth’s magnificent performance could have been used to tell any story where the “cure” was to be put to the test. Any major speaking event would have sufficed to give us the feel-good factor when he was able to speak with some fluency. For example, The Blind Side (2009) offered us an inspirational Sandra Bullock steering Michael Other towards his selection in the NFL draft. It achieves its effect without being mawkish and by being relatively low key. Contrast The King’s Speech where the director felt the need to introduce all the complications of the Abdication and the politics of the build-up to the declaration of war. Unfortunately, he was then faced with major time constraints. There was no room for any of the historical detail. As time was compressed, even the daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, stayed the same age although the years were passing. The result was a superficial mess where reality was subordinated to the need to have Logue arrive slightly late and breathless at the Palace to be able to coach Bertie for his big moment. What rubbish! Or is it?

 

Some might argue that a film based on real events doesn’t have to be accurate. Thinking about the Oscars, accuracy would be a reasonable factor in the judging if there was an award for the best historical film. As it is, the process of making a film about real events is rather the same as adapting a book for the screen. When it comes to the Oscars, we’re solely interested in whether it’s a good film. How well the adaptation follows the book or historical reality is not the criterion. While I feel betrayed that a British team would so willfully misrepresent British history, others might say that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

 

I’m reminded of Anand Tucker‘s controversial Hilary and Jackie (1998) which supposedly tells the story of Hilary and Jacqueline du Pré. Many of those who knew Jacqueline were outraged and asserted the only reason it could be made is that you cannot defame the dead. This naturally leads me to ask whether film is ever capable of being a true historical record. Let’s start off by thinking about what history is. This is not a convenient bundle of facts we can pick up and examine. It’s a shifting mess of information that we continuously review and reinterpret for our own purposes. When you think about what happens to any individual during their lifetime, we cannot know everything. So we pick events that we say are significant and remember those. Except, the moment we start picking from the mass of facts and editorialising, we are inevitably remaking the past for our own purposes. This year, we choose to remember the good stuff about a national hero. Next year, it may be convenient only to remember the bad stuff about this terrorist.

 

If we call our film “fiction”, should the directors perhaps be allowed some latitude? Ah, but that’s the thin end of the wedge. Once we begin to offer different labels for our films, whether as historical fiction, as drama documentary or docu-drama, this changes the game. It becomes more dangerous because some labels are signalling a pretence of greater accuracy. For example, in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Michael Winterbottom mixed real and staged footage in a faux cinéma vérité. Like many who make films, he was striving to create a sense of reality or credibility. If there was no actual film record, he created something that would “feel” right. When the events historically take place before the invention of cameras and we stage our version, everything is fictionalised. How the costumes are designed, the make-up is done, the scenes are lit, and so on: it all combines as our version of history. Similarly, when we see the label “bio-pic” or the phase “based on true events”, we should feel no greater confidence. At best, the life story is sanitised, omitting embarrassing details to protect reputations. At worst, key events are rewritten.

 

Slightly changing the basis of the debate, how should we react if the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) showed Anne being liberated from the concentration camp at the end of the war? Say the focus group thought the original ending too depressing so they reshot her being rescued by a smiling GI. Well, this is the well-worn SF trope of alternate reality. So Richard III (1995) has the King jump to his death rather than be captured, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) assumes the South won the Civil War, and Scott Free, the production company run by Ridley and Tony Scott, has announced its intention to make a version of The Man in the High Castle in which the Axis Powers win WWII. To my mind, all of this is fair game so long as you warn people in advance. This is no longer “historical” drama in which we see “real” people. Rather it’s a “what-if” drama showing how “real” people might have reacted had history turned out some other way.

 

It all comes down to how much faith people put in the validity of the labels. If people are led to believe a film is substantially accurate, then it should be. But if they understand that, for the purposes of making a “better” story, the director changed the facts to create more drama, they can have fun looking up the history to see which bits are fiction, i.e. they are not misled. To my mind, the failure to warn people of the extent of the historical revision is potentially dishonest. Hence this rather strange new phase, “Based on a true story” which we now take as a warning that the production company made up most of what we see on the screen. I think The King’s Speech should have carried a warning that major parts of the story were fictionalised. That would have played fair with the audience. Alternatively, the film should have been scaled down to show an ending with Bertie speaking in Australia. If a low-key approach works for films like Finding Forrester (2000), in which a shy young writer grows in confidence under the guidance of an established author, it would work for films about stammerers being shown how to speak in public. The King’s Speech doesn’t have to be an epic to be a success just as cinéma vérité doesn’t have to show real events.

 

My thanks to Angela-35 at imdb.com who prompted me to think about the issue and whose opinions are reflected in this piece.

 

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