Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hollywood Magic

I didn't see nearly the number of 2012's Best Picture Oscar nominees as I typically do. I saw and reviewed Steven Spielberg's Lincoln shortly after that released in theaters, but didn't get to see several others of the interesting candidates before they were gone from theaters. But wait long enough and stuff becomes available streaming or on DVD, and so we sat down last week to watch the Best Picture winner, Ben Affleck's Argo.

As everyone probably knows by now, Argo tells the story of the so-called Canadian Caper, a ruse whereby six American diplomats are hidden and then spirited out of Tehran during the hostage crisis of 1979. The film begins with a few minutes of voice-over summarizing the history of Iran and our meddling in the country's internal affairs. This meddling leads to the overthrow of the legitimate, mostly-secular government of Iran in 1941 and the ascension of our handpicked successor, the Shah. When the Shah is deposed by a popular uprising in 1979, the Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini ascends to power and the country's descent into religious madness begins. After his overthrow (apparently for too much secularizing and modernizing), the Shah, now ill with cancer, goes to the US for medical treatment, and when the US government refuses to extradite him back to Iran to face charges the country responds violently. The American Embassy is overrun and smashed by an immense, spiral-eyed mob, and the diplomats inside barely escape and go into hiding in the Canadian Ambassador's residence.

This is the setup, and the bulk of the film covers their attempt to get out of the country in one piece--this is very clearly not what life in the diplomatic corps was expected to deliver. Ben Affleck (who directed the film) plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative specializing in undercover escape work. Mendez is in on the State Department briefings as various bad-to-worse options for rescuing the hiding diplomats are debated. And his solution, the solution eventually agreed to (though without any enthusiasm by State), is for Mendez to fly over to Tehran and coordinate the group of them impersonating a film crew scouting locations for a big Hollywood blockbuster film. Fake names, false documents, the works.

It's a fertile enough concept, and the film is brilliantly cast and directed. Ben Affleck's directing style always reminds me of Clint Eastwood's. Argo is mostly quiet and self-assured and keeps its focus entirely on the story without distraction and gimmickry.

It's really a high-tension setup, and we are on the edge of our seats for the whole two hour ride. There are moments of dark humor, but not like a Coen Brothers film where (drama or comedy, it doesn't seem to matter to them) dark and light are intermixed in almost equal measure. The opening scene of the embassy being overrun and the sheer, destructive violence of the mob are visceral and terrifying. And the ambassadors seem almost continuously on the verge of being found out, an event which we feel certain would be brutal and horrifying.

And I wanted to say that it's the skill of the film--and its director--that this tension is not overplayed or steroid-infused; it's simply the drama intrinsic to the elements in play. But afterward I was a little frazzled and exhausted by what felt like two hours' of balancing on the spire of the Empire State Building. All this tension is effective and deftly done, but to my mind it's just too much and too much of a single thing. I felt further reservation after the fact by my research into the historical events on which the story is supposed to be based. I certainly don't want to insist on documentary-like accuracy in telling a historically-based story; this is, after all, an entertainment. But so many of the details that keep us with our fingers in front of our eyes for the duration of the film turn out to be Hollywood inventions. And in this case I feel put off that the drama of the actual story was deemed insufficient to hold audiences' attention. Most of the near-misses and razor-thin close calls, as Wikipedia tells it, "did not happen" as depicted.

I can quite sympathize with the viewer who finds no validity in this criticism. So much of our film entertainment has little or no link to mundane reality (and why should it?). But this story plunks itself amid tumultuous historical events and is essentially trying to portray real things--why else would we bother to match the looks of the actors almost identically to the real ambassadors? And so I find myself taking a wee bit of umbrage: either tell a compelling story and don't worry about historical events (like Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds) or hew to the facts and educate us about a real and dramatic event from history.

And that's enough to keep it out of my top spot thus far. We have Ang Lee's Life Of Pi on the list upcoming, and I expect to see Django Unchained as soon as it's available on DVD. For now, Lincoln has my top spot for the year.

Grade: A-


Vancouver Voyeur said...

I enjoyed Argo, but didn't really get carried away by it. I loved Django! My favorite film for the season was Silver Linings Playbook.

wunelle said...

We saw that and loved it too! Jennifer Lawrence is kind of a phenom.

dbackdad said...

Great review! I'm like you in that I have not seen as many of the Oscar-worthy movies of '12 as I would have liked by now ... and that is why I haven't put up my usual top 10. There are just a couple more I want to see, including Life of Pi, before I put it up. Needless to say, both I did already see Argo and Lincoln and they will definitely be top 3.