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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.

 

Zendegi by Greg Egan

September 7, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s a curious coincidence that this book opens with a problem I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Being one of the dinosaurs, I’m still hoarding my collection of singles and LPs accumulated over the early years. I copied the 78s to tape many moons ago but I worry about how long the tapes will remain playable. Like Martin Seymour in Zendegi by Greg Egan (Night Shade Books, 2010), I dream of digitising all the recordings but find myself lacking the will. My wife has little interest and will not shed many tears if the original recordings are put on to the funeral pyre when my body is finally sent on its way. She’s not a Hindu and, therefore, would not consider sati (or suthi) an appropriate way of celebrating my death. But relieving herself of the option of replaying some of the hits from the 1950s might give her peace in her remaining years.

Anyway, Martin discovers that, unless you carefully check the sound levels on all the records to be transferred to the computer, it’s very easy to end up with wave shaping, i.e. distorted sound. Being something of a perfectionist, that would mean I could not listen to any of the affected tracks. Because he’s pressed for time, Martin makes the discovery after he has disposed of the originals. This loss makes him sad. But, in a more serious way, it also foreshadows the problems explored in this book. It all starts with the efforts of Nasim Golestani to map the part of a finch’s brain that decides what song to sing. She eventually creates a computer model that replicates bird song. It’s not clear how successful this is because it’s a bit difficult to ask real finches what they think of the tone and melody produced by the computerised version. The rest of the book then moves up to artificial intelligence experiments on replicating human abilities. Not unnaturally, there are some rich people who think it would be just dandy to have themselves uploaded and so achieve immortality.

Greg Egan keeps this real in his consistent rejection of the notion it would be possible to make a recording of anyone’s brain waves and so reproduce the human being. The best his scientists can manage is the replication of physical skills in avatars. Zendegi is a gaming platform and the owners make a lot of money out of people wanting to play football and other sports alongside or against their favourite players. Even inducing natural language abilities is fraught with difficulty because, like the bird song, computers have no understanding of how and why each individual note is significant. So avatars can be given access to comprehensive vocabularies but, even with multiple brain scans taken over months, there’s no consistency in the avatar’s performance as the target human. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to “clone” a human personality by digitising his or her brain waves.

This is not to say that avatars could not undertake routine tasks and so displace the need for human labour. For example, it might be possible to build systems sophisticated enough to replace call centre staff or to perform other tasks not relying on face-to-face contact with real people. In a sense, this is simply extending the displacement of the thousands of administrative and secretarial staff in the management of any business. With software able to take dictation from bosses who refuse to learn how to type, there’s no longer a need for shorthand and typing skills sitting expensively in another office, nor for the clerks who file all the paper copies of correspondence generated, nor for the filing cabinets thereby closing down industrial production and terminating further jobs. All forms of automation seriously limit the need for human workers. Machines are cheaper and, once they have learned the jobs, make fewer mistakes. So, in all this continuing debate about the extent to which real world societies should allow the development of automated systems, Greg Egan is asking and answering some relevant questions.

However, I find it strange he should place most of the action in a near-future Iran. Although it’s certainly relevant to consider whether, in any sense, machines might capture souls, the political backstory to this novel simply gives us a thriller scenario and does not significantly advance the science fiction element. I’m not convinced the Islamic reaction to the phenomenon of avatars in a gaming environment is constructive in advancing the plot. The reaction of the Christians to the Zendegi project and another US-based attempt to create a massive AI capable of running human government is somewhat predictable and not given much space for development. Indeed, the whole tenor of the book is less science fictional than I expected. The first third is more or less a straight thriller about journalism, and the latter two-thirds is the increasingly sentimental story of Martin and his son. Although the two parts of the book do tie together in the relationship between Martin and Omar — initially a neighbour who gets involved in helping Martin get the news — Martin is somewhat self-absorbed as a person and fails to understand the significance of the relationship. He sees surface reality and is not particularly good in assessing the person underneath. As an early incident shows, you can dress up a man in women’s clothing but this does not convert the man into a woman. Gender identity is based on the whole package of the personality, the physical behaviour and the context. Similarly, you can capture features of human behaviour in avatars on Zandegi, but this does not make them human.

So Zendegi is a sentimental journey through life made by a two slightly inadequate people. Neither Martin nor Nasim are particularly successful as humans although they do manage to get things done. They work on a project together and it fails. I think that sums it all up really. The book is good in part but unsatisfying because it fails to really engage with the social and political implications of the work being done. We see it but there’s not enough meaningful discussion of it. The real questions are whether something approximating human is better than nothing and, if what you create is a kind of Frankenstein monster, would it be moral and legal to kill it by wiping it from the server?

For another review of a book by Greg Egan see The Clockwork Rocket.

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