dir: Ben Affleck
3 for 3. How does Ben Affleck, Ben Affleck get to be such a good director after a lifetime of blockheaded roles and lacklustre performances? Ben Affleck from Armageddon? Ben Affleck from Gigli? Ben Affleck from Pearl Harbor? That Ben Affleck?
And yet Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now Argo are all superbly made films. How does that work?
Well, there’s a scene where Affleck’s character Tony Mendez is asking an old Hollywood special effects hack about whether it’s possible to teach someone how to fake being a director in one day. The weary hack states quite unambiguously that he could teach a rhesus monkey how to be a director in one day.
Affleck must have put this in as an in-joke, he must have, aimed at both the people who admire what he’s done as a director and those who can’t believe such a hammy actor has the temerity to direct films, and good ones at that.
The fact is he can direct, and he’s doing really well thus far. I’m sure my appreciation of him, which will be reported back to him by some perky squirrel of an unpaid intern, who trawls the tubes of the internets for nasty or nice comments about him, will warm the cockles of his heart and tickle the follicles of his under-beard.
Argo covers an exciting caper occurring during an incredibly tumultuous time in American history, being the Iranian revolution starting in 1979. Oh yes, the film gives us a neat little summary at the beginning of showing what happened in the broader sense when the Iranian people, gently guided by the fervid Revolutionary Guard, overthrew the CIA-installed Shah and put that handsome old devil the Ayatollah Khomeini in power.
And one sunny day, a whole bunch of angry people descended upon the US embassy, resulting in 444 days of absolute hell for the 54 people they took hostage. Six of the Americans working at the embassy were in a building that opened directly onto the street, ignored at the early stages by the rampaging hordes of righteous scumbags. Those six people, six Americans, had no idea of how to get out of a country on fire where everyone seemed to be chanting “Death to America, Death to the Great Satan, Death to Pretty Flowers and Gary Coleman from Diff’rent Strokes” on every street corner.
Look, it’s understandable that the Iranians were pissed off. Their democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossaddegh had been unceremoniously deposed by the Brits and the US, and a cruel tyrant was put in his place because of oil and such, and they really weren’t in the kind of headspace whereby understanding and tolerance were uppermost in their minds. Revenge, REVENGE was what they wanted to feast on, that and the brains of Americans, so these six State Department shmoes weren’t feeling very loved out there on the streets of Tehran.
They hide out with the Canadian ambassador, and then do nothing for a couple of months. The lazy fucks. I hope they helped out around the house at least. Did some dishes. Cleaned some tables. Did a spot of vacuuming. See, because Canadians are so affable and non-confrontational, I bet the ambassador and his wife were having these arguments where she was saying, “Look, they’re not even lifting a finger around the place, they keep sneaking looks at my underwear drawer, and they won’t even sing O Canada when we do. They’ve got to go.”
- “Now honey, they’ve had a really bad time of it lately, eh? And I’m sure they’ll do the decent thing and clean out the ashtrays some time soon. So why not give them another few days, and if things don’t change, I’ll leave them a strongly-worded note. Maybe not strongly worded. Perhaps a gentle reminder, yes, that will do nicely.”
Forget that. The ambassador and his wife are absolute champs. At a time when people are being shot or literally strung up in the streets, these two, Kenneth and Pat Taylor did way more than they had to, and basically saved these people’s lives. Well, that’s the worse case scenario, that they would have been executed, best case being I guess that they would have been yelled at and put with the other Americans at the embassy. Either way, it wouldn’t have been pretty, and the Taylors clearly saved their bacon.
Enter Tony Mendez, as played dourly by Affleck himself. He’s on the CIA payroll, and his speciality is exfil, or Exfiltration, which is the opposite of Infiltration, we can assume. His job is to figure out a way to sneak the six Americans out of a country where they can’t pretend to be locals (since they look like dowdy WASPs peeved that the cucumber sandwiches have run out at the country club’s buffet), and where escape is unlikely. The best plan the State Department can think of is to get six bikes together, and to tell the six to start riding for the Turkish border, 300 miles away, in the middle of winter. “State Department” is the equivalent of our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which means most of these six people aren’t exactly Jason Bourne with the espionage and the arse-kicking skills. They’re tame, timid bureaucrats who would cry if a bartender didn’t get their martini just right.
The reason why this saga is worthy of story and song, and two hours of our lives isn’t the hostage crisis, or the Islamic Revolution; it’s the absurd, almost comical way in which Mendez contrives to get them out. The only cover story he can think of is to get the six to pretend to be Canadians. Now, that’s an almost impossible feat for Americans, but even more absurdly than that, he wants it to look like they’re in Iran scouting locations for a sci-fi flick called Argo.
Such a cover requires what looks like the set up of an actual film production, so Mendez actually gets a couple of old Hollywood guys to give it all enough legitimacy for it to fool not only the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guard, but the American public as well. Sure, it looks like a terrible rip-off of Star Wars, with a blue Wookie and a silver C3PO clone and other approximations of various elements drawn from A New Hope and Flash Gordon, I guess, but we’re meant to hope that it gets the job done.
The two Hollywood hacks, John Chambers and Lester Seigel (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) actually have to go to fairly elaborate efforts in order to make the production look real, so in effect they get to act out all their Old World Golden Age ideas of what scumbag movie producers would have done in such a context, so Goodman and Arkin get to have a ball essentially overacting like washed-up hacks doing dinner theatre. That’s unfair to Goodman. Arkin completely does the cantankerous shmuck stuff that is somewhat funny but it could have been unbearable, I can’t decide. He spends most of the flick after he’s served his purpose essentially just repeating the same sequence of words calling back to a joke he tells a journalist who asks him why the film is called Argo.
He says “Ar-go-fuck-yourself” so often I started grinding my teeth. But then it went all the way back to being funny again, then it stopped and stayed unfunny. I did love their interactions, and they were the funniest part of a very serious flick otherwise.
But Iran is where the real action is, and that’s where Affleck (the director) manages to wrest most of the tension out of the premise. It’s vivid, edge of your teeth, seat-grinding stuff, when part of you wants to scream from the tension. Sure, it’s massaged and altered to make it seem far more precarious and far more dangerous (not more dangerous than it was, but more tension-filled in its resolution. And that’s a good thing, I say, even if it was, as numerous sources have pointed out, completely different from how this flick says things happened. What ingrate cares? This is a Hollywood movie about a fake Hollywood movie and how it saved a bunch of people, for crying out loud, what more do you want.
My heart was in my mouth even knowing what the outcome was going to be, and the film managed to turn the simplest elements of the escape into the stuff of high operatic drama. I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the six in the ambassador’s house, or differentiate them from one another apart from what elements of funky-daggy 70’s looks they were embodying, but they did their job too. And the whiny one who looked like he was going to blow the whole thing? Let’s just say he surprised me, cynical see-it-all me, and that was much appreciated.
As an example of time-travel, back to the late 70s early 80s, it looked seamless, in that the integration of news footage and the time period set design and such was phenomenal, really well done. It’s almost on the queasy Mad Men level of antiquated detail, which probably was a bit of a waste, but it did keep several anal retentive set designers employed and off the streets for a few weeks.
As almost universally loved as this flick has been critically, I’ve heard a tiny bit of criticism of Affleck directing Affleck in this, in that he could have been a bit harder on the guy, or made himself absent from the front of the film, as much as his work behind the camera is appreciated. I could have done with a few less of his reaction shots, but mostly he’s pretty fine in the role. He plays it somewhat depressed and close to the vest, and only has a few annoying scenes of pensive mournfulness where we’re meant to see how deeply he feels stuff even through the undergrowth of his beard. He’s fine, who’d have guessed?
Definitely one of the films of the year, and deserving of many of the overenthusiastic ejaculations it’s been responsible for. Ar-go and maybe see it?
8 times Affleck’s affectless beard does most of the acting for him out of 10
"The saying goes, "What starts in farce ends in tragedy."
-"No, it's the other way around."
"Who said that exactly?"
-"Groucho said that?" - well, he was a very talented man - Argo