Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Recent Watches: Argo (2012)

I have no prior experience with Ben Affleck the Filmmaker. When I think of the guy, I think of the star of esteemed classics like "Gigli," "Reindeer Games," "Daredevil," and "Good Will Hunting II: Hunting Season." Despite the critical acclaim "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone" received, I went into "Argo" with few expectations.

I was vaguely familiar with the true story the film is based on, mostly through this Cracked article and the involvement of comic artist Jack Kirby. (Who has a cameo in the film, played by a well-cast Michael Parks.) The Iran Hostage Crisis is a bit of a historical blind spot for me, taking place before my birth during an overlooked presidency. The film sets up the historical context very quickly and succinctly, using Kirby-style storyboards and tense reenactments. Despite the entire plot revolving around six of the hostages, the movie’s not really about them. Instead, it’s about Tony Mendez, CIA agent who specializes in getting folks out of tricky situations. After shooting down all the other plans, Mendez cooks up a plot to sneak the six out with a fake movie production. And we’re off.

“Argo” isn’t quite a movie about movies, or even the magic or illusion of cinema. Instead, it’s a heist flick, about a ragtag group of heroes cooking up a wild scheme to sneak their loot out of its vault. Except in this case, the loot are six hostages and the vault is Iran in the middle of political revolution. The first half of the film revolves around setting up our master planners. Affleck plays Mendez, who is separated from his wife and beloved son, setting up the expected redemption arc. John Goodman does well as make-up legend John Chambers, who is deeply involved in the film’s plot and really was a CIA contact in real life. Alan Arkin is nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as Lester Siegel, the Hollywood shyster who is largely responsible for the rest of the world believing “Argo” is a real film project. The nomination is kind of surprising. Arkin isn’t bad, he’s quite entertaining actually, but he doesn’t step outside of his grouchy, crusty older man wheelhouse.

The first half is largely the film’s most entertaining. Watching Arkin and Goodman bitch through crappy screenplays, looking for the perfect crappy screenplay, establishes the film as part of the long line of Hollywood dramas, looking at the cynicism and artifice behind the Dream Factory. My favorite scene is a thrown-together press conference, in which in-costume actors read from the script. It probably says a lot about me that I would probably rather watch the fake-movie this real one is about. (Also says a lot about me: I immediately recognized the cheap robot costume as Interrodroid 3000 from “The Middleman.”) Arkin is at his best when telling young entertainment journalist to fuck off and bitching about his ex-wife. While the scenes of scrambling politics in the CIA office are less entertaining, they do feature a highly-strung Bryan Cranston, which is always welcomed.

What really breaks up the early parts of the film are the scenes in Iran. None of the six are developed beyond basic ideas. We get quick bio readings of each near the beginning which is all that defines them throughout the entire film. There’s grumpy mustache guy, nervous dude, his wife, and some other people. We can’t even associate each character with an established actors as, besides from a barely recognizable Clea DuVall, there aren’t any known actors among the parts. The hostages are strictly plot devices. Later moments that show Iranian extremist breaking into the embassy lack tension.

Their plot device status is all the more apparent in the latter half of the film, when “Argo” becomes a full-blown thriller. After a tense walk through the crowded bazaar, the movie barrels towards its climax. Our hero has to get his half-dozen MacGuffins through the airport and out of Iran. Naturally, the plot shoves every inconvenience in the way. An overzealous military guard at the airport yells at the group, aggravating an all-ready nervous situation. When he goes to call the fake set-up Hollywood studio for confirmation of the supposed story, the producers are kept from answering the ringing phone by an intruding film shoot. Once they get on the plane, there are pursued by angry Iranian soldiers, just seconds away from catching up and ruining the entire plan. These are blatantly constructed thriller set-pieces. Despite the obvious seams showing and lack of investment in the characters, the sequences still work. The combination of pacing and acting makes the scenes intense. Affleck really should have gotten a Best Director nomination.

The subplot about Mendez, his estranged wife, and son are obvious appeals to emotion. None of it is convincing, especially since the kid is in two scenes and the wife even fewer. I stand by my opinion of the score, as its largely bland dramatic pounding and quivering strings. Unlike a lot of bloated Oscar-bait, “Argo” is well paced at a comparatively short two-hour runtime. Those Jack Kirby storyboards get a lot of screen time and provide two of the film’s most charming moments. “Argo” is hardly a masterpiece. It’s shockingly thin in some regards but undeniably effective in others. From the sounds of his previous two flicks, Affleck the Director sounds like a strong genre worksmith, which is nothing to be ashamed of. How a thriller like this gets award season buzz and others just as good, even stronger, are ignored, is a testament to the “seriousness” historical, politic content can lend a story. [7/10]

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