Argo

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Argo. The true story of a 1980 CIA operation to mitigate the Iranian hostage crisis, and a narrative that, if you substituted Gellerese for Arabic, would be indistinguishable from a Mission: Impossible episode.

And, according to the AMPAS, the capital-letter Best Motion Picture of 2012. This is gonna be a hard one, folks. My reaction to the movie is one of mild approval – I like it, but not nearly enough to really care about it. And so, not only is this going to be really hard to review, but it’s going to be even harder to write jokes about.

Argo is well made, well acted, and well written, but it lacks any sort of signature or specific style to set it apart from the crowd. It’s a good movie, but it definitely won’t be remembered as the best that 2012 had to offer, because it just didn’t capture the same magic that we got from offerings like The Avengers or Skyfall.

The movie opens with some background on the 1979 Iranian revolution (You’re on the internet right now, folks, I shouldn’t have to recount it here), related to us via slickly made, stylized movie storyboards. I like this concept, and I think the movie would have been more memorable had they made more liberal use of it, but this is pretty much the only time we see this blending of real life and exaggerated fiction…

…for the next thirty seconds, that is. A mob of revolutionary Iranians storms the American embassy in Tehran, the civil servants barely escaping with their lives. Just in case we weren’t sure that it was the seventies, every single one of them has caterpillar mustaches, big Coke-bottle glasses, mop-tops, or ugly ties. Since this is a serious dramatic thriller, we don’t see the fully operational roller disco and leisure suit wardrobe in the basement, because everyone’s too busy burning classified documents and trying to escape undetected to get down with their bad selves and boogie.

That guy on the far right is making sure he didn’t just enter a time warp.

Seriously, though, the sequence goes a long way to set the tone and the period. My only problem is that the opportunity could have been used to establish our motley crew of Macguffins – make us care about them on a personal level, for reasons other than being Americans.

Amid the chaos, we see the Macguffins quietly escaping from a back entrance. Back in Washington, a squad of suits exposit that they hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador. After some Sorkinesque banter over how to get them back on friendly soil, they decide to do absolutely nothing – a policy that will continue to serve the American government to this day.

(See, Dad? That was a topical political joke! I’m a real humorist now, right? Right? Where are you going, Dad?)

Weeks later, we meet our protagonist. If you’ve seen any political drama in the last few decades, you could probably skip this scene altogether and not take a thing away from your understanding of the plot: Attractive but vaguely slobbish main character (Played with a Wiseautian flourish by writer-producer-director Ben Affleck) wakes up, hints at family issues for future drama, goes to work in a suit-filled federal building, sits at a smoky table, sets up the movie’s stakes… just about the only point of interest in the entire sequence is the appearance of Bryan Cranston as a government agent. This agent drew the long straw that day, granting him a name, a half-dozen extra lines per scene, and, well, a portrayal by Walter White – the last of which guarantees supporting-character status.

“What do you mean? Of course I run a secret drug ring – it’s the seventies, that sort of thing is normal!”

Agent Cranston breaks down the situation to Affleck (who is evidently the only covert-ops specialist in the entire CIA to have been asleep for the past three months, given his ignorance of the situation). Drunk on his newfound supporting-character powers, Agent Cranston suggests several plans to get the Macguffins home – forgetting that because he’s not the main character, anything he will say is wrong, wrong, wrong. Affleck shoots down every single idea, and calls his latchkey son to take his mind off of things. His son won’t stop talking about the Planet of the Apes sequel he’s watching (Gee, a lackluster installment of an overall goofy franchise, with a sequel to a lukewarm reboot on the way… I can’t imagine why Affleck feels drawn to the Man of Steel series), and as Affleck watches Cornelius and Dr. Zaius lope through the desert, uplifting musical plays as inspiration strikes him.

Or, at least, the music’s supposed to be uplifting – somehow, Planet of the Apes’ cut-rate prostheses and goofy aesthetic that we see on the screen don’t do the tone any favors. We see bucketloads of Star Wars memorabilia, but they apparently couldn’t be bothered to swipe a few seconds of A New Hope. Now, keep in mind I’m only bringing this up because it’s one of the few real technical missteps for the film. Though you wouldn’t know it from this thorough ribbing, Argo is a damn fine movie – the acting, direction, music, production design, and dialogue are all top-notch. Even though the next sequence is all just iterating on stuff we’ve been told already (the Macguffins are under careful scrutiny by the revolutionary government, the tensions between Iran and the US are at a fever pitch, each side is being a racist, bloodthirsty jerk to the other), it’s still interesting and riveting to watch.

The next day, Agent Affleck presents his plan to the smoke-filled room: He will go to Iran with the cover story of a location scout for a cheap sci-fi movie. To establish this cover story, he’ll need to use a contact in Hollywood: Former Vietnam veteran and King of England John Goodman.

Goodman really lights up the film. He gets all the best lines, his position (his character is a makeup artist, in a nice nod to the classic Mission: Impossible perfect prosthetic jobs) allow for some notable locations and scenarios, and he can put Agent Affleck in contact with Hollywood’s pre-eminent alter kocker, Alan Arkin.

According to IMDB, these actors have almost 300 credits between them.

After a quick status update in Iran (I’m just calling them ‘Irantermissions’ from now on), Arkin bluffs his way into acquiring the rights to “Argo”, a Star Wars ripoff with cues from the then-upcoming Flash Gordon film. Agent Cranston disapproves of how long the plan is taking, but he’s fortuitously interrupted by feel-good classic rock, heralding the start of a montage.

Arkin and Goodman set up a snazzy publicity function, using various slightly-altered Star Wars characters. At the party, Affleck talks with Arkin about their respective neglected children. This movie isn’t much of a character piece, but Affleck does have an arc, even if it only affects about one out of five scenes in the film, and has no bearing on the actual plot. I’m fine with this on paper- the alternative would be much too distracting – but as a subplot it just feels out of place and tacked on.

Elsewhere at the party, John Goodman and various sci-fi references do a read-through of the “Argo” script for the press. There’s some genuinely profound stuff here, as the generic fantasy tropes are interspersed with real-life footage of Jimmy Carter and the Ayatollah railing against each other, and underscoring the “true drama” that was this film’s draw.

Some use of the opening-sequence storyboards wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

Before that, though, we get what I really, really hope isn’t Ben Affleck trying to force an internet meme: Goodman’s refrain of “Argo fuck yourself.” As a catchphrase, it’s quite a lot like the film as a whole: It’s funny, and used well throughout, but it just isn’t particularly memorable or repeatable.

The press function…makes the press function, and now “Argo” is in the news. Agent Affleck’s plan gets grudging approval from a pair of grumpy CIA higher-ups who were probably supposed to appear for more than about fifteen seconds, considering the buildup they get.

But the movie has enough characters to juggle already. As Affleck prepares to fly to Tehran, he’s seen off by Agent Cranston, who makes an admirable effort to give himself a character beyond “generic muckity-muck-cum-confidant”. This is only his second scene, so it doesn’t work, but the actor should be commended for giving it the old high-school-chemistry try.

As Affleck’s plane takes off, we have another pointless scene with his son, and an Irantermission. This one is much more tightly focused than the rest – the Macguffins actually build up some character dynamics, and one of them even gets a whispered speech about how bad their situation is.

Elsewhere in Tehran, Affleck lands, and goes through the city. Another montage shows us that in a revolution, life goes on – the shot of a woman eating fried chicken across the street from a corpse hanging off a crane is particularly effective stuff.

Now I had to do a Google search for “iran + hanging” – thanks for the government watchlist space, movie.

Affleck goes to the Canadian building where the Macguffins have been hiding, and tells them the plan. There’s some skepticism, but they eventually accept that the outlandish cover story is their only hope for survival.

That night, Agent Cranston drops Affleck a line – the Iranian MPAA has called his bluff, and wants to have a meeting with his film crew in a crowded bazaar the next day. The Macguffins don’t react well to this news, and get into a shouting match that Affleck has to resolve. And so it’s settled – their Canadian film crew cover identities will have to suffice.

As the Macguffins drive to the meeting place, they have to negotiate rioting in the streets, and squads of armed revolutionaries. I feel almost embarrassed to be reminded of the opening of Modern Warfare 1, but they’re both similar in style as well as visuals – there’s a pervasive feeling of inevitable danger.

This action is done in a much classier way than Infinity Ward could ever manage, though- Affleck and the Macguffins walk through a bustling marketplace, bluffing their way through questions from a wisecracking local. The action here is especially well-done, because it creates drama without combat – there’s some shouting and running, but nary a blow is thrown as the Macguffins navigate the crowd.

Extras! Getcha extras! Get ’em while they’re nice and ethnic!

The only real problem with this scene is the editing. The entire movie up to this point has been intercut with thirty-second-long scenes of secondary characters doing nothing – all setup for later plot points, never too long to distract from the important stuff, and easy to overlook – but here, the tension is stretched to its limit.  The harrowing meeting is intercut with…an inconsequential Iranian lady, having a conversation in Farsi with some guy we haven’t seen before. I’m on the edge of my seat, folks – will we understand a thing she’s saying? Will he ever stop smiling that creepy smile of his? And…what about Naomi?

Eventually, Affleck manages to talk his way back to the Canadian embassy, where he berates the Macguffins (low-level office workers who haven’t left the house in three months) for their inexperience in handling top-secret covert operations. After some more arguing, he’s interrupted by a phone call: Agent Cranston, saying that his project has been shut down, it was all for nothing, the military is planning on freeing the hostages with force, and that this year, there will be no Christmas!

Affleck is so surprised that, because there wasn’t a loud, scratch-able record playing at the time, someone has to go put on a record instead (Seriously, that happens. Blame the editing, folks). Affleck drinks himself into such a stupor that he starts having brief hallucinations of Iranians slowly piecing together clues about who the MacGuffins really are – no wait, that’s just the editing again.

The next morning, he decides to go through with the mission anyway, leading to some intercutting I actually like: As Affleck calmly and quietly briefs the Macguffins on the heavy network of airport security, Agent Cranston starts shouting at everyone in earshot to help him get the plane tickets authorized, the camera following him in dramatic tracking and orbital shots. This lasts for quite a while, as our two groups navigate their respective labyrinthine bureaucracies (phone company; airport). Eventually, though, Agent Cranston gets everything in order, and it’s all down to Ben and the gang to convince their way past airport security.

This is the high-octane climax, and I will drop all my quibbles and nitpicks here – this is amazing stuff. As the crew is stopped by airport security and have to stand up to close scrutiny, the music and blocking ratchet up the drama. Eventually, Goodman and Arkin are brought into the mix via telephone, and any movie that can make a climactic action set piece out of a fat guy picking up a phone has got some quality filmmaking minds behind it. Whatever I might say about the movie’s bad points, they’re easily overshadowed by basic scenes like this.

“And then he says ‘Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!’ and turns into a truck!”

After they make their way on to the plane, though, all the Irantermissions pay off, when a revolutionary cabal discovers (after a long, well-paced subplot that I’ve completely failed to mention until now) who the Macguffins really are, and make a mad dash to catch up to the plane. Their last-ditch effort fails, as the plane takes off, happy music starts up, Agent Cranston hugs all of his friends…you get the picture.

I’ve given this movie some flak for being unoriginal, but on reflection, this is one of the times where some cliche can work to a film’s advantage – the usual term here is “tried and true”, and the truth is that the movie left me thoroughly entertained.

As the film wraps up, Agent Affleck reunites with his family – taking time out to look at his son’s vast collection of sci-fi toys (so vast, I note, that it includes a Boba Fett doll despite it being more than a year before The Empire Strikes Back was released – but I digress), and watching archive footage of Carter and Tip O’Neill, which eventually segues into a series of real photos of the dramatized events.

I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of the story Argo was based on to form an educated opinion on how the real-life aspect was handled – I’m judging this as a film, and nothing more or less. And though it wasn’t the best film of 2012, it’s still pretty far up there.

TWO THUMBS UP: The drama and action scenes

THUMBS UP: The central plot and acting

THUMBS DOWN: The badly-inserted subplots

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The editing

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