Love and Afflecktion
If, like me, you've been thinking that the quality of new movies under review here lately has been noticeably higher than this time last year, then an answer of sorts may be at hand: looking back, I see it's over a month since my last visit to either the sweetshop or the coffeeshop. Clearly, partaking of the more refined fare on offer at the Phoenix is its own reward. That said, the arthouse has made a big commitment to showing Skyfall (with considerable financial success, I suspect) and as a result the kind of intelligent, grown-up movies it usually specialises in have been a bit squeezed out.
Is this why the major chains were able to lure me back with Argo? I don't know, but this is certainly a bright and mature movie, as one would expect from George Clooney, who produced it. Directing it is... I'm sorry, there seems to be a mistake here. It says 'Ben Affleck'. Not the Ben Affleck, the guy out of Armageddon, Daredevil and Paycheck, obviously, the one who I last caught in the utterly baffling Jersey Girl. Must be some other Ben Affleck – funny, I thought there were rules against that kind of thing. Hey ho.
The movie opens with a deftly-told slice of political history, recounting the west's installation of the Shah of Iran, his abuse of his position and the Islamic revolution which forced him to take refuge in the USA. From here we go into a very well-mounted and plausibly nervy sequence with the US embassy in Tehran under siege by revolutionary elements demanding the Shah's repatriation for trial. The walls are scaled, the embassy is stormed, and the entire American staff is taken hostage.
...well, not quite. Six of them sneak out just before the embassy is taken and find a haven of their own in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. If they're caught there, it will be a diplomatic incident; if they're caught trying to flee the country, they'll be executed. It is a tricky situation for the State Department and the CIA, whose responsibility dealing with this sort of crisis it nominally remains.
Coming to their rescue is hangdog CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben... ah, I see what's happened, they've got the name of the lead actor mixed up with that of the director. I wonder who it really was. Anyway, Mendez comes up with a startling plan to ensure the escape of the six fugitives, involving fake IDs, adverts in the Hollywood trade press, real-life make-up legend John Chambers (played here by John Goodman) and a chance encounter with a TV showing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which, if it genuinely happened, may actually justify the existence of that movie)...
Oh all right, everyone insists that Ben Affleck didn't just star in this movie, he directed and co-produced it too – so I suppose I have to accept this is true. I don't know what ol' Ben's been doing for the last eight years but he should certainly keep at it, as this is a rock-solid movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Having said that, I went into it knowing relatively little about the substance of the story, so I was pleasantly surprised by much of the incidental detail and the accompanying Hollywood in-jokes. Anyone more familiar with the story, or with less of a fondness for late 70s SF cinema, may find it much less of an unexpected delight.
The details of the plan are, as many of the characters admit, slightly absurd, and the movie runs with this, becoming a very deadpan black comedy for much of its first half – 'this is the best bad idea we've got,' a senior CIA man earnestly tells his superiors – with jolly turns from Goodman and Alan Arkin as a veteran movie producer who gets drafted into the scheme. (The real-life involvement, albeit tangential, of distinguished SF writer Roger Zelazny has not made it into the script.) This is engaging and very funny, but the film never quite loses sight of the seriousness of its story – a comic scene involving numerous characters in nudge-nudge SF-style costumes is effectively intercut with similar, much graver events in Iran itself.
Once Mendez jets off to the Middle East the film becomes a rather more straightforward and serious thriller: will the scheme be rumbled? Will the six fugitives be identified from reconstituted embassy records before they can escape? (I must confess that the scenes of shredding being reassembled brought back fond memories of a highlight of my own career in government service: what can I say, this film seems designed to make me biased in its favour.) 1980s Tehran is well-mounted and the movie is never less than involving.
Of course, this is a dramatisation of real events, not a documentary, and so one has to take some of what's presented with a pinch of salt. There were a couple of moments during the film when I thought 'this is straight out of the Hollywood scriptwriting playbook, I'll bet it didn't actually happen like that' – and, generally, I was right! I'm not sure if making your improvements on history so blatantly obvious justifies them or not. Hmm. Some of the background detail has been less-obviously tweaked, in a way that presents some countries in a less than flattering light – Affleck himself has owned up to feeling bad about this. I suppose the facts are out there for anyone who's really interested in the history, and this is just a movie, after all.
It's a consistently clever and well-made movie, though, with some extremely effective sequences in it. Ben Affleck is not what you'd call an ostentatious director, but he gets the job done with skill and fluency. As an actor... oh, the temptation to dust off all those old jokes is almost irresistible. Ben is not terribly demonstrative, shall we say, but he has undeniable charisma and his performance makes sense given he's playing a professional keeper of secrets – it's not the most introspective part, either. Certainly there is no shame to be attached to Affleck's contribution to this movie, in any department.
Y'know, even back when I was laying into Ben Affleck every time he turned up in a duff new movie, it was really done much more in sorrow than in anger, because I always liked the guy and could see he had in it him to do so much better. So to have him reappear in a movie as good and enjoyable as Argo has been one of the year's great pleasures. Nice to have you back, Ben! Keep it up...