Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (2012) – Review

Review: Argo is a gripping thriller that also plays as sort a nostalgic comedy. The film is about the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis. When the U.S. Embassy is stormed by Iranian revolutionaries, six civilians escape out the back and hide in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA agent Tony Mendez, who specializes in extracting people, puts together a plan to get them out of Iran. His plan involves a fake Hollywood sci-fi film called Argo.

Director Ben Affleck does a lot with the material in this film. First, it is based on a true story, which seems to automatically make it more compelling, and yet a lot of the narrative’s tension comes from the specifics. Getting the six Americans out is thrilling enough, but this is a movie after all and things need to be enhanced for dramatic effect – how much is enhancement and how much is fact is unknown to me, but I take the specific details that heighten the tension to be enhancement. Details like: the mission being called off only for Mendez to go ahead anyway leading to the CIA home office having to scramble to get everything in place. Or, the movie producers being delayed by a production assistant and nearly missing the call that saved the lives of the Americans. All these things make the tension almost unbearable, yet feel kind of phony at the same time. That said, Affleck’s use of tension in the third act is fantastic (phony or not). The dramatic tension is done so well that it is almost too effective and nerve-racking. Even when the Americans are home free (I would say spoilers, but this is a true story, so we all know how it turns out already), the audience is still not sure if everything is going to be okay through the rest of the film because they are still so wound-up. Affleck’s has done seemingly too good a job, as the tension builds and builds throughout most of the second half of the film. The narrative device signaling that the suspense is over and the audience can relax seems to not have its intended effect, as the audience is somewhat on edge through the credits (and on the way back to their cars).

The tone of the film varies a bit, which also plays into the tension being almost too intense. Affleck marries two very different tonal aspects of the narrative: one being the gripping thriller of the Americans hiding and then being rescued, and the other being Mendez’s trip to Hollywood to build the cover for his mission. This section of the film plays like a comedy. The tone is very light (for the most part, though there is still an edge simmering underneath as the situation in Tehran is never out of mind), with the narrative playing almost like a nostalgic trip back to Hollywood in the late 1970s, early 1980s. There are lots of jokes (both verbal and visual). There are kooky characters. The tone in these scenes certainly does not mesh particularly well with the rest of the film (right?). Except, it sort of does mesh well, because Affleck is commenting on the absurdity of the plan to get these people out – pretending to be a film crew scouting a location in Iran for a sci-fi adventure – and really the whole situation. There is still a subconscious disconnect for the viewer however, as the tone changes from serious drama to comedy to nail-biting thriller which throws off the narrative structure a bit, but Affleck is able to guide the viewer through and keep them engaged with his compelling storytelling. He weaves all the different elements of the story together very well despite the tonal issue.

The tonal shifts and the overwhelming tension, seemingly built on Hollywoodized dramatic enhancements to the narrative, still leave the film feeling like it does not quite work as well as it seems to. Yes, it is very captivating, and Affleck does a wonderful job with the characters economically giving them each enough for the audience to be invested in them (which only again adds to the effect of the tension – as the audience cares about what happens to these people), but there is something missing. It might be that Mendez is not a strong enough character. Thus, the audience is merely watching the narrative play out (while having a stake in the Americans plight, trapped in Tehran) rather than being pulled in by the film’s protagonist. Affleck does develop the character, but he is very dry and sort of dull (for the most part). It might be that the ending is not effective enough to break the tension and allow the audience to feel relief (and I think this is one of the main issues with the film along with the aggrandized dramatic tension). It might be the narrative structure feeling disjointed due to the varying tone, which also causes the pacing to feel a bit slow at times. It might be all these things.

However, overall Argo is a very good thriller, as it completely commands the audience’s attention (especially in the third act), and is also appealing for its nostalgic qualities, particularly for those familiar with filmmaking (and the Hollywood system), overcoming its narrative and structural issues.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ben Affleck is now three movies in as a director (his other two being Gone Baby Gone and The Town). And, he is three for three in terms of making good films. Argo will likely be his most critically acclaimed as it is already earmarked for Oscar contention (but personally, The Town is my favorite). The film works because of its poignant dramatic and emotional correlation to the political climate in today’s world (specifically in the region – and specifically for Western audiences who can empathize with the characters). Justified or not, there is a palpable fear or tension in the air regarding the future of the Middle East (for both its people and the World).

Alexandre Desplat’s score is great, mixing flavors of the region with dramatic touchstones that emphasize the emotions of the narrative (here is a playlist). The film also has a great period soundtrack (Dream On is very effective in the trailer). Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is excellent, really capturing the period look with his lighting. However, Sharon Seymour’s production design stands out the most. The sets, costumes and overall look are brilliant, as much of the film has been matched to documentary footage taken at the time of the crisis. The exceptional production quality does elevate the overall feeling of the film rooting it in realism, and Affleck does a great job with this as well as director.

The cast, which includes a ton of small roles and bit parts, is very good – Richard Kind and Kyle Chandler standout in these bit parts. Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, and Victor Garber are strong in small supporting roles, having to play a lot of strain on their characters. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are great as they bring comedy to the film, while still preserving the film’s dramatic power. Bryan Cranston plays sort of a generic character, but brings some humanity to him nonetheless. Ben Affleck has a touch role to play, as most of the characters around him get all the good stuff. He is mostly an observer, with brief dramatic moments. And yet, he still is able to serve as a good (though the character is not great) connection to the story for the audience.

Summary & score: Argo has a few nagging issues, but overall it is an entirely absorbing tale. 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment