Monday, 11 February 2013

ARGO: I.T.'S OSCAR WATCH

With its copping of best picture and best director masks at the Baftas, on top of the DGA award, Argo has become the front-runner for the Oscar, which is interesting given its opposition. Argo is a very likeable film, well-made, with real suspense in its last act, and an atmosphere of menace in Iran and Washington both, contrasted with an atmosphere of anarchic freedom and humour in Hollywood.

Which is why, call me cynical, I'd popped Argo as an Oscar favourite as soon as I saw it, for two connected reasons which both have to do with Hollywood's perception of itself. The first is obvious—as much as the movie shows the CIA saving the day, it is the Hollywood producer (in fact the film's only totally fictional western character) and make-up guy who actually come up with the goods, and in the process provide us with self-satirizing boffo yucks. The second is related: the Tehran rescue contrasts with the failed attempt at rescuing the hostages in the US embassy—the signal moment of Jimmy Carter's administration. Carter gets little credit for the Argo rescue (neither do the Canadians—more on that later) but the upshot of his failure was turn to the country over to Hollywood, in the person of Ronald Reagan, who was selling America fantasies they wanted to believe, as opposed to Carter's visions of grim reality. That we now know Reagan's people made an October Surprise deal with the Iranians, not to make any hostage-releasing deal until after the 1980 elections merely reinforces the point. Reagan's election saw the US enter a post-reality based world, in which it is still entrapped, and Argo may best be viewed, depending on your political perspective, as a reminder of what the real world was like, or, more likely, a reminder that the people who brought you the world of fantasy are the only ones to trust.

Or you might perceive Argo as a 'feel-good' version of Zero Dark Thirty, in which the CIA are heroes and the interrogations are mostly John Goodman's John Chambers torturing Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez with Hollywood insider info. Or you might see it as a positive nod to a can-do America that, despite its thriller-matic finish, is actually accomplished more easily than, say, Lincoln's emancipation of black slaves was via American democratic process.


The movie itself skips between genres cleverly—and is most effective for its reconstruction of the period—not just sets and costumes but also the dirty grainy look of the film itself, which is pure 70s, and encourages the audience old enough to remember films you didn't download to transport itself back to the days of those sorts of political thrillers. In fact, there are shots of Mendez in the CIA HQ which straightforwardly evoke All The President's Men, in case you're old enough and missed the point. Ben Affleck doesn't ignore facts—the CIA's role in installing the Shah as dictator is set out right at the top—but the trope is an old one of maverick within a flawed system who eventually gets that system to do the right thing. In this contxt, Affleck the director is very good with actors in ensemble roles, much like Clint Eastwood. Affleck's ensemble contains many faces in familiar roles, faces who espcially shone in such parts on quality TV: Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek , Clea DuVall (Carnivale), Tate Donovan, and Kyle Chandler (as Hamilton Jordan). Less like Clint is also good at minimising his own part, which is good because Ben Affleck the actor still has limitations when it comes to carrying a film—I think he works best as a straight man. I still believe George Reeves was Affleck's best role, and that may be at least partly because he sensed a kindred talent.

There were, however, moments that left me feeling uneasy, that I was being manipulated, particularly in the rousing end sequence at Tehran airport. It struck me as odd that the children would have put together the right photo at just the wrong time; that the guards would chase a Swiss Air commercial flight down the runaway, firing at it; that the pilot would not notice any of that, and that the tower would not simply stop the plane's takeoff, if they thought spies were escaping. As it happens, none of those things are true: the departure from the airport went off without a hitch (for reasons described below). But you couldn't have the suspense without tampering with the facts. I was even more sceptical of the guard making a phone call to the film's production office in LA, for two reasons: one being long-distance calling and time zones, and the other being why would a Canadian film crew not have a Canadian office number, and why would a phone number in the Babylon of America not arouse suspicion?

There has been a lot of discussion in this year's Oscar run-up about historical fact—what with Zero Dark Thirty trying to have it both ways about torture, and Lincoln being accused of being Caucacentric, and also gilding the lily of remembrance by anointing its hero prematurely, or Django inventing sunglasses and a pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan. Much of the criticism is unjustified, in the sense that film scripts will inevitable consolidate multiple characters and re-order events to serve their own purpose. Thus, the fact that most of the hostages stayed not with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played very well by the Candian actor Victor Garber) but with one of his assistants, John Shearwood, is hardly crucial; it makes dramatic sense to keep them all together. The scene in which the Brits and Kiwis turn the refugees away is also apparently false: the Brits took them in and Kiwis transferred them to the Canadians, where it was thought they would fit in more naturally and be safer. The jibe,if gratuitous, does serve to emphasize the plight of the Americans, and obviously the Bafta voters didn't hold it against Argo.

But it should be pointed out that the Canadians did far more than simply sit back and wait for the CIA cavalry to arrive (shades of Independence Day!). In fact, Ambassador Taylor manipulated his staff's travel to help create the necessary visas, and it was the Canadians who got the airplane tickets—thus the whole cancellation and restoration by the CIA sub-plot is fiction.

I was also put off a bit by the separated husband/lonely father sub-plot for Tony Mendez; Affleck plays it with suitable moroseness, but as it turns out, it too is a fictional construct. The reason for it is obvious and familiar—Mendez not only has to redeem himself at the CIA but he has to conquer personal adversity along the way; this is the arc that dominates Hollywood—though they just couldn't figure out a way to have Abe Lincoln reunited with Mary Todd at movie's end.

Complaining that Alan Arkin's Lester Siegel didn't really exist would be silly—they need him to carry those sections, and his double-act with Goodman is one of the high points of the film. In reality, another special-effects genius, Robert Siddel, who did ET, was announced as the co-producer with Chambers when the ads went into the trades. Interesting, the original screenplay was based on Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light, one of the key sf novels of the Sixties, and the film was intended for use in an sf theme park that never happened. Michael Parks has a cameo as comics genius Jack Kirby, who actually did draw the storyboards for the fake film, which also had Ray Harryhausen and Buckminster Fuller attached to it (!). Which ought to be enough to get Lord Of Light made, after all these years. I'm sure they could get Lester Siegel to produce. He could make the 'argo fuck yourself' joke another twenty times, and get a laugh every time.

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