Directed by: Ben Affleck
Produced by: Ben Affleck
Screenplay by: Chris Terrio
Based on: The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez
Escape From Tehran by Joshuah Bearman
Starring: Ben Affleck
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing by: William Goldenberg
Studio(s): GK Films
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release date(s): August 31, 2012 (Telluride Film Festival)
October 12, 2012 (United States)
November 7, 2012 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 120 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $44.5 million
Box office revenue (as of publication): $187, 085, 011
Alright folks, I'm banging on ahead with this. What with us being right in the middle of the awards season, I do have my work cut out for me. I've got this and Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai left before I get into my capsule reviews, among which will be the films (I've seen so far) Cockneys Vs Zombies, Jack Reacher and Django Unchained, the review for the latter of which I'll try not to mention The Emperor's New Clothes (oops! Hey, it's not the review!). So, for the upcoming capsule reviews, an article on the Oscars, another on the increasing running time in movies and my inductions into The Thin White Dude's Hall Of Fame, keep your eyes posted!
Today's (and tomorrow's) movie up for analysis is Ben Affleck's Argo. Since it's release in October, it has been touted as one of the major front-runner's of the awards season, and indeed, it has won many awards, including Best Picture - Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes, and featured in many critics' top ten lists, with Roger Ebert naming it the best film of 2012. I personally have been a big fan of Ben Affleck since the beginning of his directorial career with Gone Baby Gone, starring brother Casey and one of the finest thrillers of the past ten years, and The Town, which, while flawed, is directed with conviction and is an interesting film. Argo, based on a true story, is set in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis in Tehran, when the American Embassy was stormed in support of the Iranian Revolution. Tony Mendez (played by director Affleck) is a C.I.A. operative who, with the help of his supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), contacts John Chambers (John Goodman), the noted Hollywood make-up artist, who puts them in toucher with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together, the group set up a faux 'science fantasy' film production by the name of 'Argo,' which is their cover story to try and rescue six hostages while they 'scout' locations in Iran. Get the story? Catch my drift? Let's boogie!
To start with the good about Argo, I've got a lot to say about Ben Affleck. As mentioned, I've been a fan of his directorial work since Gone Baby Gone, and The Town was another solid entry into his canon. Here, Affleck leaves the comfort of Boston and heads to many different locations, but loses none of the finesse and authorial control that distinguished those pictures. Indeed, I think he has outdone himself here, as he displays his instinct for purely cinematic storytelling, heading down the straight and narrow line. Like any film, in the wrong hands, Argo, could have been botched, the film is piloted nigh-on perfectly, hitting every note just right in a seamlessly brilliant directorial role. How he has not been nominated for an Oscar this year is beyond me, because I cannot emphasise enough not just how important his role is Argo's success, but also that he is one of the best working film directors, period! Equally, in the same way that Clint Eastwood became a better actor after he started directing movies, Ben Affleck delivers his finest performance to date as Tony Mendez. Though he has suffered (some justified) negative criticism in the past, this is a spot-on lead role. He carries this in a very understated way, playing the character essentially as a blank canvas who has no emotional investment as is just doing his job. However, playing it in this way gives him the opportunity sketch a detailed portrait of his character. There are certain wordless moments in the film, almost like a silent film, with just music (diegetic or non-diegetic) in particular the 'When The Levee Breaks' scene(s), and Affleck's terrific facial expressions guide our emotions more than words could. It's like his work as a director has opened up a wider perspective on acting for him, and I think this is one of the most beautifully understated roles I have seen in quite a while. Also strong on the acting front are Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Victor Garber, each of whom do a great job of embodying their characters in a way that does not hog up the scenery and drives the film forward, but not without giving their characters three-dimensionality, and each of the actors playing the hostages are solid. Also, this is a technically great movie. Rodrigo Prieto's unconventional camera techniques are put to use in a conventional Hollywood manner, making for a stylistically interesting palette. Prieto's moody lighting, on conjunction with both handheld and on-rail film cameras give Argo an artistic splendour that elevates it above the caper/thriller genre trappings. Also, William Goldenberg's terrific editing is key to adding the necessary level(s) of tension to the proceedings. Absent of the slash-and-cut 'Michael Myers in the editing suite' style, Goldenberg wisely draws out a number of sequences, cutting at exactly the right moments, so that not only does it come across as a genre thriller, but also as high art. The 'Minivan Stuck In Protest' scene (no spoilers, don't worry) is one of the most nerve-wracking moments I can remember seeing in a film recently, and it is the skill of Goldenberg's editing, an exemplar lesson in montage, that this scene works so well. Also, the budget is clearly wisely invested in establishing a believable mise-en-scene. The production designers have done a great job in recreating the late 1970s-early 1980s period. Importantly, while it is a period movie, the designers have done it in a naturalistic way, so that it isn't explicitly saying "Oh, in case you forgot, it's the '70s." It is done as such that it is a setting designed to contribute to the narrative. The same can be said for the costume and make-up/hair departments, who do their work in a very un-flashy subtle way that in effect contributes more to the film than if they went out and made the designs like, say, those for last years J. Edgar. Also, Chris Terrio's script is for the most part uniformly strong. It's quite a task for a script to be able to touch on so many different aspects to this story without losing itself inside it's own complexities, but Terrio manages to keep it tight. Argo is not only a nail-biting thriller and deftly subtle character study, but it's also one of the funniest movies of 2012. Not just the sheer ludicrousness of the central concept, but the execution and development of the film around it are marvellous. Anything and everything is subject to what me and my friends would call 'casual abuse,' and it does come across, particularly in the American scenes as a rather spiky satire on both the C.I.A. and Hollywood. I mean, although I'm not a fan of puns (generally), I'll be damned if someone ever asks me as to the meaning of the title of the film and I don't say, like the characters, "Argo fuck yourself!" Finally (yes, there is a finally), I liked the music of the film. Yes, Mr. Aural Hypersensitivity actually liked not just the music in the film, but a score by Alexandre Desplat at that! There's a bit of hyperbole to that statement, given that he was nominated last year for a Thin White Dude award for The Tree Of Life and I liked his work for The King's Speech, but me and Desplat have had a mixed relationship over the years. I have found on numerous occasions his music (and the use of it) to be full of the compositional equivalent to amateur dramatics, to histrionics that scream "This is a sad scene! Cry!" This time round, the score has his trademarks of brass and strings, but with an interesting potpourri of Middle-Eastern inflected woodwind instruments and the subtle use of synthesisers. Also, the use of his score lacks the undertones that indicate how the audience is meant to feel, and his work here is one of the best scores of the year. Argo is a masterpiece with a huge amount going for it, all of which is siphoned by Benny, The Champion Of The World. Outside of the Roald Dahl reference, I mean Ben Affleck!
So, yes, I liked Argo. However, it's not absolutely flawless. Humour my minor digression, but I want to make abundantly clear that it was Chris Terrio, who wrote this movie, with Joshuah Bearman having wrote the article 'Escape From Tehran' and the real Tony Mendez having wrote 'The Master Of Disguise.' The latter two are the sources upon which the film was based, but they did not write the screenplay. There's a 'critic' by the name of Cole Smithey who asserts that Bearman, "debut screenwriter," wrote the film and not Terrio. The only reason I bring this error up is because he wrote a cretinous review for Beasts Of The Southern Wild, full of verbose statements that lack a genuine argument. His capsule review for Argo (his long reviews are the same with more ludicrous hyperbole) is full of the same nonsense, while spending the other half on plot synopsis'. It just annoys me that a guy who calls himself 'The Smartest Film Critic In The World' gets a platform to run his mouth, and does it rather badly! Anyway, back to the review, the only real issues that I had with Argo was that there were a couple of contrivances in the script and cliches that stick out a bit in this otherwise flawless movie.
Regardless of these little niggles (it really is just nitpicking), I thought Argo was a jackknife masterpiece. It is tight, solid and efficient, down to a solid script by Chris Terrio, technically it's a dapper movie, with the cinematography and editing working to serve an artistic purpose, the mise-en-scene contributes much to the narrative and all-round it's a terrifically well-acted movie. The star of the movie though is unquestionably Ben Affleck, who excels in all of his working capacities here, as director, producer and actor. In an already great career as a director, Argo has worked its way up to the top spot and is his best movie.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.3/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Chillin' (Tekken Tag 2 on a rainy day, not a bad deal, eh?)
P.S. To Cole Smithey: NIC WINDING REFN IS NOT DUTCH, HE'S DANISH! ARGO FUCK YOURSELF!