Monday, 12 November 2012

Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)


Brother and I went to see this at the weekend, and I'd highly recommend it. I've had a fondness for Ben Affleck ever since Shakespeare in Love, even through the J-Lo years (if you doubt me, just consider my opinion of Keanu Reeves and Star Trek Voyager...) and I'd heard that he was a very good director, but his other films (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) aren't really my thing (they looked a bit depressing!). So I was very keen to see Argo, a drama-with-a-bit-of-comedy-in-it-but-not-that-much-really about a CIA agent pretending to make a bad science fiction movie in order to get six Americans out of Iran in 1980. It's very good, and benefits from the real life events it's based on being relatively little known/remembered (obviously, I hadn't been born, but it hasn't rung many bells with people who were alive that I've talked to, though obviously they remember the taking of the American Embassy that kick-started the whole thing).

My excuse for blogging it, other than to say 'go see it,' is that there are a handful of references to the ancient world scattered throughout the first part of the film - most prominently, the title. Argo is the title of the bad science fiction film agent Tony Mendez is pretending to make. During a read-through of the script (a 'real' script that had been rejected, that composite character Lester Siegal buys to make the fake movie look real), one of the actors/various Hollywood people quizzes Siegal about the movie's title, only for Siegal to eventually exclaim, exasperated, 'Argo f*** off.' The random Hollywood person is probably right though, or nearly - he insists the title must be a reference to 'the Argonaut,' but he means the Argo (the Argo is the ship, an Argonaut is one of the sailors on the Argo). The Argo is, of course, Jason's ship in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Science fiction, as long term readers of this blog will be well aware, frequently draws on the Classical world and on Greek mythology in particular so it's no surprise that a science fiction film would draw on the myth of the Argo in this way (though Wikipedia informs me that the real film was re-named Argo by the CIA, having been originally Lord of Light. It sounds spectacular. Someone should make it).

The choice of Argo for the title of this film as well is an interesting one. On one level, it draws on the mythology the same way the fictional science fiction film is presumed to - it gives the story epic overtones and a suggestion of adventure by linking it with an ancient quest story full of magic and exotic characters. But it also sounds, in English, just a little bit like another famous ship, the Ark. The subliminal suggestion of a lifeboat rescuing people from a great disaster is perfect for the film.

Other references to the ancient world are briefer, but the first line in the film refers to ancient Iran - the Persian Empire - which is a really nice beginning, as it evokes Iran's long, fascinating history before catching up to more recent events. There's also a brief exchange where John Goodman's John Chambers suggests using a script called The Horses of Achilles and Siegal declares that if it's got horses in it, it's a Western, and no one makes Westerns any more. It's very funny (Chambers does try to explain about ancient Troy) but also true in its own way - the tradition of the Western does feed into certain other genres of film, especially where horses are involved (or even camels, in The Mummy's case), and as Tony Keen has suggested, several films about Roman Britain draw on the genre of the Western in their representations of Roman-period Scotland.

As an historian, I feel duty-bound to point out that the film is far from historically accurate, but as an historian whose knowledge of the area in question is two thousand years out of date, I am spectacularly unqualified to do so myself. Assuming Wikipedia is halfway accurate, I think my fellow Brits (and New Zealanders) may have been insulted, though out of the need to create drama rather than any malicious intent. Overall, for those of us who don't know anything about the history of the region pre-the early 1990s, the film may, possibly, do more good than harm (though I assume this depends partly on your political persuasion).

As a film and a piece of drama, this is well worth seeing. Affleck really is a very good director (check out subliminal touches like the poster for New York showing an image of the financial district of downtown Manhattan in 1979 that the hostages in the embassy are rushed past during the storming of the building). He earned my eternal affection in particular with a couple of sequences that demonstrate a love and understanding of science fiction as a genre. The first was the scene in which the read-through of Argo which was intercut with news footage from the crisis in the Middle East; on one level, it shows up how ridiculous the film is, but is also emphasises what science fiction tries to do, which is represent feelings and struggles and emotions that are very real through metaphorical stories. But even better was the sequence towards the end which lovingly panned over Mendez' son's action figures (mostly from Star Wars, plus a Mr Spock). To a degree, science fiction saved these people's lives, and the shot plays like a rather sweet little thank-you to the genre.

Excellent hair/shirt combo

Argo isn't a perfect film, but it is very good and well worth a look. Plus, the very, very bad film-within-a-film looks so bad it could be brilliant - the campaign to get it made starts here!

More film reviews

12 comments:

  1. Sounds like you enjoyed Argo as much as I did Juliette! Great post on it! :o)

    I too really enjoyed seeing all the sci-fi action figures in his son's room, nice touch!

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    1. Yeah, it was very good.

      I'd link to your review, but I can't concur with you on Skyfall! ;) I thought Skyfall was great (gender issues aside)

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    2. At the risk of derailing things, I'll just say that Skyfall was fun, but definitely the weakest of the three Craig films, saved primarily by the brilliant cast and Scotland.

      (And as someone who was around during the whole Iran crisis thing, I'll just say that I had never heard about this operation. What I do remember is the smuggling out of a number of USians by the Canadians via their embassy. I seem to recall there was a TV movie made about that, but I can't be sure -- but, then, there's a TV movie made about just about everything, so the odds are pretty good.)

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    3. This is that same incident - they stayed with the Canadian ambassador. According to the film, the CIA wasn't mentioned and all credit given to Canada at the time, and the mission was declassified by Clinton in 1997. Obviously I have no idea how accurate any of that is!

      (Skyfall the weakest?! What about Quantum of Solace?? I preferred Skyfall to Casino Royale as well, though I did like Casino Royale)

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    4. I just can't understand why people dis Quantum of Solace. I think it has to be the name, which spooks people somehow. You've got an amazingly strong female in Olga Kurylenko, a plot that is byzantine but perfectly followable, a bad guy (actually two!) that's Bad, great locations, etc. etc. And I have a soft spot for Bolivia, who always seem to be getting screwed.

      Skyfall has a great cast -- and Scotland! -- but, geez, the whole thing reminds me of an old Mission: Impossible episode where the IMF team, apparently not needed to save Democracy this week, go on holiday to help Jim Phelps find out who kidnapped his sister or something.

      And I just can't think of enough good things to say about Casino Royale; it just plain rocks.

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  2. Great review! I loved Argo, too.

    Ben Affleck has received flak for "being wooden" but I thought he was perfect. It was brave to play Mendez as a stoical character, which the real life ex-CIA agent is. This was also generous, as it allowed the other stars to shine. The final 20 minutes had me literally scrabbling at my thighs like a cat trying to get out!

    I've been thinking about it a lot and I believe one of the master strokes was the casting of Bryan Cranston. He has to bridge the comedy bits and the thriller bits. Only an actor as consummate as he (and Affleck) could have pulled off lines such as "It's the best bad plan we have."

    I loved Skyfall, but Argo has stayed with me. I've now bought the soundtrack and will be seeing it again at least once.

    Unless Lincoln is pure masterpiece, this is my Oscar-winning best film of 2012.

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    1. Cranston was great (I've just watched my first episode of Breaking Bad, must have a look at some more of it!)

      The Hunger Games is probably my film of the year so far, excluding stuff that was in last year's awards stuff (like Coriolanus). I liked Argo a lot though. But of course, The Hobbit's coming out soon.... ;)

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  3. Excellent thoughts on the film, Juliette. I did see the movie, and Affleck is turning into an exceptional director and storyteller. I enjoyed it tremendously.

    I did see Skyfall, and reviewed it. I really enjoyed that, more so than Quantum (though I didn't mind that one, I can see why some people have issues with it), and last night saw Lincoln.

    I think Lincoln's the Oscar winner this year. At least for Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. They are that good in their roles.

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    1. I'm not sure when Lincoln's out over here, hopefully soon, I'm looking forward to it. Though not as much as my insane levels of excitement over The Hobbit...

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    2. The Guardian says January. Should be quite the flick.

      I think Churchill is pretty much England's Lincoln. But he lived. I'm trying to think of who the equivalent great martyred hero who saves the nation in Britain would be. Is there an obvious candidate? Martyrs aplenty. But it's hard to see David Cameron invading Scotland to hold the Union together and getting shot at the Albert Hall for his troubles.

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    3. It may not be true, but I'd pay to see that film!

      You have to go to myth and legend (i.e. people who are not real) for us - King Arthur. Thing is, not everyone in our union wants to be, so not everyone would be super keen anyway!

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  4. Right, Arthur -- for some reason he hadn't occurred to me.

    Still, if they can make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I don't see why they couldn't turn out David Cameron: Hammer of the Scots.

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