Saturday, April 27, 2013

Argo (Warner Bros., GK, Smokehouse, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Argo, this year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, and both Charles and liked it but I didn’t think it really achieved greatness. It certainly began with one of the most fascinating premises for a movie imaginable: the real-life rescue of six of the personnel from the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1980 after Iranian students loyal to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. Embassy and held over 50 people hostage for over a year until they were released the day Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter as president of the U.S.: an event the hostage crisis had done quite a bit to bring about. The six escaped being held inside the U.S. Embassy by sneaking out the building’s side entrance (ironically, a door that was usually used to accommodate Iranians seeking visas to enter the U.S.!) and into the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, where they remained for over three months. They were even referred to as “house guests” and the Canadians put their own lives and liberties on the line sheltering them. But they couldn’t leave the building without risking being apprehended either by Iranian authorities or the same sorts of mobs that had taken the U.S. embassy in the first place, and the State Department was put in charge of trying to come up with some way to sneak them out of Iran and into a friendly country from which they could make their way back home. The State Department called in agents from the CIA, including an “exfil” expert (“exfil” is short for “exfiltration,” and in the movie one of the people in the Canadian ambassador’s house notes that he’s never heard the word before) named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). He hears various plans being discussed, including issuing them bicycles (how would they get them to them?) so they could bicycle the 300 miles to the Turkish border; trying to pass them off as Canadian agriculture experts advising Iran’s agriculture department (Tony points out that it’s the dead of winter and no agriculture expert visits a country in the middle of the season where nothing grows); trying to pass them off as teachers at the International School in Tehran (which has been closed for at least eight months); and the scheme Tony finally thinks of on his own and, in the face of skepticism from the State Department, puts into action. It calls for passing off the six American Embassy personnel as members of a Canadian filmmaking team that went to Iran to scout possible locations for a science-fiction movie on the basis that much of the Middle East is desert and therefore suitable to represent what most movie audiences believe other life-bearing planets would look like.

To make it seem credible Tony has to hire a producer — he finds an old, over-the-hill one named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, giving a performance that reminded me a good deal of Dann Florek’s police-captain character in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) — and buy the rights to a script called Argo whose writer intended it as the story of Jason and the Argonauts transposed to outer space. (Lester has never heard of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and therefore, when he’s asked at a press conference, he has no idea what the title of his putative movie means: later he coins the phrase, “Argo, fuck you” and that becomes a recurring motif throughout the film.) The plan calls for Tony to fly into Iran and collect the Americans, then leave with them through the various checkpoints — a relatively easy (he thinks) one at the airport, a tougher one at Iran’s immigration department and a really tough one staffed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — as if they’ve only been there for two days. Of course, this being a movie, he pulls it off despite the usual complications — including the pass system Iran introduces at the airport just before his arrival, whereby when you land in Iran the person at the desk who admits you writes two copies of your document, a yellow one you’re supposed to turn in when you leave and a white one they keep so they can match it with yours and make sure you’re who you say you are and you came to Iran when you said you did. Argo came on a DVD with a documentary featurette on the actual rescue — which included one odd fillip which writer Chris Terrio (working from a memoir by the real Tony Mendez and a Wired magazine article about the rescue) left out of his script: even after they finally got on the plane to Zurich, Switzerland, mechanical trouble kept the plane grounded at Tehran for a half-hour and naturally made the escapees even more frightened than they already were. (The script did include the scene in which all the escapees have cocktails once they’re told by the flight attendants that, now that the plane is out of Iranian airspace, alcoholic drinks may once again be served.)

 Argo turned out to be a quite entertaining movie, well acted (as films directed by actors generally are — as I’ve noted in these pages before, even actor-directors who as actors were heavy-duty hams, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, managed to get understated performances from their cast members), well staged and benefiting from Affleck’s decision to shoot it on film instead of digital equipment and to use half-frames, blown up 200 percent, to give it a grainy look that would make it look like a late-1970’s movie. He also used the form of the Warner Bros. logo that was in use when the film takes place instead of the return to the classic “shield” version Warners has done since. Argo is a largely understated movie that makes the business of heroism seem just that — a business — Tony Mendez is portrayed as cool and dispassionate (except when he’s trying to talk the State Department bureaucrats out of ideas that don’t work, or when he’s frantically trying to call the U.S. President because the White House has canceled the operation to prepare for the April 1980 attempt to stage a raid to free the Embassy hostages and he needs Presidential intervention to get the op back on again) and the film as a whole is constantly stimulating but rarely exciting. It’s the sort of attempt at a thriller that makes one wish Alfred Hitchcock were still alive — even a relatively minor Hitchcock film like Torn Curtain (a comparison I picked because it’s also about an attempt to smuggle someone out of an unfriendly country) has far more thrills than Argo. What makes Argo fun are the bits of wit in Terrio’s script — especially its mordant observations about Hollywood (when Tony explains the plan to his movie-business contact, makeup artist John Chambers [John Goodman], Chambers says, “So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!”), though even those were done better in the somewhat similarly plotted Wag the Dog, and also its refusal to present the Iranian hostage drama as a straight morality play.

Befitting its origins as a production for George Clooney’s Smokehouse company — Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, are listed among the six executive producers and Clooney was originally set to play Tony Mendez — Argo takes a refreshingly nuanced view of U.S.-Iranian relations during the last part of the 20th century, beginning a prologue with a voice-over narrator explaining over newsreel footage that the Iranians elected a prime minister named Mohammed Mossadegh in 1950 and three years later he was overthrown by the CIA and its British equivalent because he nationalized the holdings of U.S. and British oil companies in Iran. It also superbly integrates clips of the actual TV news coverage of the hostage situation in 1980 — the joins are seamless precisely because Affleck and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, did their tricks with grain to make the “new” footage look like late-1970’s material. It also has an unusually appropriate set of music selections, including some of the mainstream pop-rock hits of the time; you get the impression you’re hearing what the characters would actually have listened to. (The soundtrack CD might actually be worth owning even though none of the songs on it, except maybe Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” are truly great.) Argo simply isn’t all that exciting — and certainly the material had the makings of a nail-biting thriller in it, but screenwriter Terrio managed to get the worst of both worlds, carefully editing the real story to fit it to the usual movie clichés and thereby distorting it a great deal but not enough that it made a viscerally exciting movie. Part of the problem is Ben Affleck’s performance; he’s quite competent (all too often Ben Affleck has turned in performances either so slovenly or so ridiculously over-stylized as to be ludicrous) but he’s covered with a full beard (like Al Pacino in Serpico) and his character is drawn so one-dimensionally about his only big dramatic issue is that because of the demands of his job he’s become separated from his wife and their child — and, natch, they reconcile (at least briefly) at the end.

Director Affleck got a decent performance from actor Affleck but the obscure Allen Coulter got an even better one out of him as George Reeves in Hollywoodland (another highly fictionalized movie based on real events), which to my mind remains Affleck’s best film (of the ones I’ve seen, anyway). Argo is less self-conscious of its own “importance” than Lincoln, its principal rival at the Academy Awards, but though both films are flawed Lincoln seemed to me to live more. Charles said he thought Argo won the Academy Award for Best Picture for much the same reason he thought The King’s Speech did: both movies are literally about the power of acting (the memoir by the real Tony Mendez on which Argo was based was called The Master of Disguise) and the ability of professional entertainers to render themselves and their services invaluable to the continued smooth exercise of government power. There may be something to that, or as I suspect the Academy simply wasn’t comfortable giving a bunch of awards to a film so consciously designed to win Oscars as Lincoln (and the professional jealousy of virtually everyone else in Hollywood towards Steven Spielberg, whom they venomously, enviously hate for having made half of the most popular movies of all time, didn’t help either!), looked for an alternative and made Argo the “safe” alternative to Lincoln the way Crash emerged as the “safe” alternative to Brokeback Mountain a few years ago. One irony is that in 1980 the CIA clamped down on all knowledge of the “Hollywood operation” and gave Tony Mendez an award for it but insisted on keeping it a secret, with the result that when the six freed hostages finally returned to U.S. soil it was the Canadians who got all the credit for their release — and this movie has gone so far in the other direction that it’s made it seem like the Canadians were just people who happened to have a house available and the American secret agents did all the work!