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“Argo” – balancing act extraordinaire

Argo

Argo accomplishes the remarkable feat of striking a balance between drama, thrills, laughs and politics.  It could have been an outright comedy, sending up Hollywood in a merciless satire, and it could have been a thoroughly tense and gripping espionage thriller.  To be both of these and more is testament to the craftsmanship of Chris Terrio’s screenplay and Ben Affleck’s superb direction, which handles the different styles necessary for the contrasting sections and maintains an appropriate tone across the disparate elements.  Equally, Argo avoids the pitfalls of being either a tedious and offensive piece of anti-Iranian propaganda, or a ponderous piece of finger-wagging at the US.

 

Politics

Where The Iron Lady spectacularly failed to be political, Argo accomplishes a remarkable piece of political balance.  In the current climate, propaganda and political correctness are in constant tension, and Argo manages this tension by not offering judgement.  Affleck does not apportion blame for the hostage crisis, but also does not shy away from historical evidence.  The opening storyboards that relate the history of Iran feature a nationalised oil industry that made the people prosperous, and the replacement of that government, with foreign aid, by one that would serve the oil interests of the USA and the UK.  Consequently, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 seems a reasonable response to almost thirty years of foreign-backed government that disrespected traditional Islamic beliefs.  Politically, this is a bold stance for Affleck to take, presenting an Islamic uprising as a political revolution rather than religious fanaticism.  Terrorism does not come up, and while the Iranian Revolutionary Army is certainly intimidating and aggressive, the members are not presented as psychotic, but justifiably angry and indignant.

 

Nor does the film perform a laboured critique of US foreign policy.  Plenty of films do this and many quite well, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007), Fair Game (Doug Liman, 2010) and Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010).  But Argo contents itself with simply presenting the historical evidence and allowing the viewer to form their own opinion.  By focusing on the human element, the film allows us to see the impact upon ordinary people of both revolutionary anger and capitalist greed.  There may be some who bemoan any presentation of the CIA and US foreign policy as anything other than the epitome of evil – even a humanitarian mission like that undertaken by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) can be seen as an act of American imperialism and the Embassy fugitives should have been caught.  I find this attitude unduly cynical and quite offensive – if we can feel empathy for the Iranian people then we can for the Americans who are equally victimised, ultimately by the same culprit.  Or to quote Lester Siegel (Alan Alda), “Argo fuck yourself!”

 

Comedy

Satires about Hollywood range from the unnerving Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) to the outrageous For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006).  Argo accomplishes much that these films do and does so with neatness and economy, plus it has the bonus of being based on actual events.  Lester Siegel and John Chambers (John Goodman) were a real producer and make-up artist in the 1970s, and Argo’s presentation of the lies, bluster and outright absurdity in movie-making is presented as both plausible and completely normal.  This is crucial – rather than making Hollywood appear silly through caricature or stylisation, Argo plays it straight with simple presentation, again allowing the viewer to make up their own mind.  I laughed out loud at several points during the Hollywood section of the narrative, such as Siegel’s anecdote about “knowing” Warren Beatty.  Alda’s performance is larger than life which suits his character, and in a town known for frauds, fame and fantasy, he fits perfectly.  The stages of film production are traced in all their showbiz glory, including the acquisition of a script, a cast reading complete with sci-fi costumes, and the more mundane office and (essential) advertisement in Variety.  The cumulative effect of these scenes give the viewer reason to care that this film is produced – an interesting what-if would be for Argo to be entirely about the production of such a film; would the viewer’s investment been as high?  I believe that it would – the passion and conviction of Siegel is infectious, and there is much to be enjoyed in the depiction of success, especially in such a weird and wonderful setting as Hollywood.

 

Thriller

While the Hollywood section of Argo is highly amusing, the bulk of the film follows thriller conventions, from the storming of the US Embassy and the escape of the six fugitives, to the final act when Mendez joins them and must lead them through Tehran.  Argo delivers several highly tense set pieces – there were at least three points at which I let out a breath I had been holding.  The casting helps: while Affleck is the biggest name in the film, the other recognisable faces – Goodman, Alda, Cranston – are all either in Washington or Hollywood.  The fugitives in Tehran are all played by relative unknowns, so there is no star baggage to indicate who is more likely to live or die.  Furthermore, the opening scenes establish these characters very well, thrust into a perilous situation.  The sense of fear is conveyed through the combination of the performances and Affleck’s close, intimate cinematography, and also the ambient soundtrack.  Shifting from hushed tones to eruptions of shouting, the atmosphere of omnipresent danger is almost palpable.  I was struck by the sound of footsteps – hurried, on-the-verge-of-panic steps as they run from the embassy, and also voices – bustle in the market, discussions among the Revolutionaries at the embassy, and most of all in the breathlessly tense climax at the airport, when the fugitives are in most jeopardy.

 

Perhaps ironically, tension is exacerbated through the absence of violence.  Not a single American agent fires a weapon in Argo, and despite the constant threat the film has few moments of actual violence.  This places emphasis upon the actors and their fearful reactions, as well as those playing Iranians, especially Farshad Farahat as a checkpoint guard at Tehran Airport who is frightening when shouting in Persian, but terrifying when whispering in English.  Similarly, the danger to the fugitives is increased through the (literal) piecing together of shredded documents, rather than men with guns chasing them.  When armed men finally do chase the fugitives, it is all the more nerve-shredding for being the culmination of all the tension that has been built up previously.

 

Argo is also interesting as a period piece.  I was struck by the moments in which Mendez or his CIA superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) communicate via landlines, diplomatic telephones and radios, as these contrast with the modern day equivalent where computers and cell phones are always within easy reach.  It is surprising how much tension can be generated by the simple inability to contact the crucial person who will give the essential authorisation, and if the person is not beside the telephone, lives will be lost.  The CIA desperately trying to find somebody without the advantages of surveillance cameras and electronic tracking could seem quaint and dated, but it actually increases the drama as it appears strange and alien in contrast to the high tech of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer (clearly, secret agents always have the initials JB).  How do you get hold of the crucial person when they have no mobile and are not in the office to answer the phone?  The resource used time and time again in Argo is creativity, a crucial element of intelligence that (at least on screen) can be lost in the jungle of technology.  This resonates with the production of a movie, where creativity is needed at every stage, from script to publicity, creating another meta-cinematic link between the fiction spun by Mendez and the narrative spun by Affleck, and links Argo with a recent spate of nostalgic spy thrillers.

 

Nostalgia

Like the contemporary-set Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and the period features Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Argo displays a nostalgia for old-style espionage, more dependent on individual resourcefulness and ingenuity than high-powered technology.  Mendez’s mission is entirely dependent on subterfuge and his wits; despite the urgency of some situations, patience is also needed as an instant response may not come. Much as Skyfall features a steady stripping away of 21st century benefits, so Argo demonstrates a time, not so long ago, when high speed internet connections (which always seem so much more reliable for movie characters than for us mere mortals) were not the saving grace.

 

The nostalgia is established from the opening credits, which are presented with the Warner Bros. logo from the 1970s.  There also appeared to be scratches on the print, which was impossible because I watching a digital projection.  For there to be “scratches” means that the appearance of scratches had been added to the film data digitally, and this indicates a remarkable (and possibly excessive) commitment to the presentation of period.  Historical context is not confined to what is represented but extends to the manner of presentation, creating an air of nostalgia that extends beyond the screen and into the auditorium itself.

 

Personally, I did not need digital scratches or an old style logo to draw me into the past.  I was born in the same year as the Iranian Revolution so I remember scratches on celluloid prints and often found them irritating.  Some lament the passing of projectionists and the rise of digital projection, but the presentation of a pristine image aids the illusion of looking through a window into another world, place or time.  Scratches could interfere with engagement in the narrative, if one pays too close attention to the presentation.  That said, after the opening minutes I was sufficiently drawn into the film that I didn’t notice any further scratches.

 

The nostalgia demonstrated in Argo, as well as the other films identified above, suggests a perspective on espionage and foreign relations that links back to the film’s political balance.  By immersing the viewer within the context of the story, providing a potted history lesson and allowing the Iranian perspective as well as the American, not to mention emphasising the importance of Canadian assistance to the mission, Argo offers a perspective that is not only politically balanced but historically astute and remarkably multi-cultural.  It is a tale of globalisation set in a time before globalisation was a buzzword.  Rather than being a story of espionage for nefarious purposes, here the CIA saves lives and the casting of blame or identification of villains serves no purpose.  All over the world, now as then, people are in danger and in terrible situations, often as a result of political decisions made by those who never have to experience the consequences.  Argo draws attention to consequence and interconnections, and dares to suggest that international cooperation is a way forward, rather than individual nations and agendas.

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Continued Assembly Expected

There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm.  Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers.  I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear.  There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection.  Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise.  While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.

Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D).  Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes.  For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”).  In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army.  From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema.  Orson Welles would be proud.

Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot.  Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world.  Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory).  Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.

Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters.  As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry.  If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds.  The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama.  One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well.  Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.

Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain.  It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout.  It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production.  Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.  The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable.  Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding.  Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters).  Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble.  Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman).  Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame.  Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy).  Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right.  Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety).  Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).

While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone.  Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2.  No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2.  Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman.  The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively.  Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res).  While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige.  Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities.  If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.

The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise.  As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover.  The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market.  Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3.  Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do).  Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working.  In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story.  Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate.  Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation.  The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe.  Digitally projected, of course.