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Spy thrillers fall into two basic categories – field and non-field. James Bond and Jason Bourne fall into the former category and are largely action thrillers, with copious amounts of running, jumping, fighting and shooting.
The other type is best represented by Harry Palmer and George Smiley, and tends to be much quieter with emphasis on talking, analysis and planning.
Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man falls firmly into the latter category, as a German Intelligence team headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the last role he completed before his tragic and untimely death) analyse, talk and plan how to neutralise terrorists in Hamburg. The film’s great strength is the detail with which it portrays the everyday work of espionage – the patience, the plethora of information that must be sifted for analysis, the clandestine meetings in public places and, above all, the relationships between spies as well as between agents and informants. Earlier in the year, I criticised Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its failure to successfully marry its conspiracy and superhero elements, the film feeling like two halves with insufficient connection. A Most Wanted Man does not have to include an action element – there are two action set pieces that are well-handled but not central to the drama – but it does a fine job of blending old-fashioned legwork and intrigue with contemporary concerns and technology. Post-9/11 espionage drama from Body of Lies to 24 is often in thraldom to the high tech gadgetry of counter-terrorism, but the computers, mobile phones and surveillance cameras of A Most Wanted Man are contextual rather than fetishized. The emphasis is upon the relationships that are key to spying – Bachmann’s team convinces as a committed but affable group of co-workers; the relationships between Bachmann and his informants, including Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams) are fraught but engaging, and it is the interplay of these relationships that leads to a nerve-shredding climax based around signatures on bank transfers. To describe a film as following relationships and culminating in financial transactions sounds more like a domestic drama than a spy thriller, but A Most Wanted Man succeeds in dramatizing these seemingly banal features into a genuinely gripping, as well as grim and dour, portrayal of contemporary espionage.
Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.
I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.
Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.
Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.
I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.
How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.
This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.
The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).
Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.
I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.
What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.
This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.
Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.
Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.
The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007. Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.
There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge. One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes. The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him. Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best. Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film. Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. Quantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.
This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall. After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration. Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better. I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director. Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up. Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up. To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.
As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension. Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy. This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.
Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention. Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor. He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops. From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!” This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions. The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.
Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see. No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation. Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home. Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.
This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged. Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films. Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No. Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger. No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.
However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself. When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller. Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities. Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat. A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”. At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk. When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.
Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters. But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world. The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens. This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills. Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot. This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.
Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall. The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond. As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes. Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.
Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years. None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes. This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva. Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son. Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.
As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6. After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker. Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”. Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall. A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island. But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect. Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper. The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home. Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.
Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony. The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it. The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962. I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new. Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.
The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall. In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction. For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films. The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs. Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24. When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment. Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately. As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue. John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard. To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!
One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics. Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing. Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details). Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny. This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman. M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency. This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995. Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.
Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely. It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning. Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in. Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities. There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai. This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image. Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself. This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.
Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors. Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight. Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate. Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero. It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence. For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012. I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically. The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.