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I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.
Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.
Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working.
Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.
The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry.
This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.
If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.
To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?
As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.
Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.
E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.
Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.
The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.
I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.
It’s halfway through 2013 so I thought it time to give a 0.5 Top Five. I don’t see nearly enough movies, but that does have the advantage of mostly seeing what I like (although there are exceptions). 2013 has been a varied year so far, with the normal glut of award-seekers out in January and February, some lingering into March, followed by the initial blockbusters in April, May and June. Lately some dreck has started to filter through my carefully constructed quality net (yes, After Earth, I mean you), but by and large, I’ve had good cinematic times thus far.
From the latest offerings, I’ve compiled a top five, which I now present in ascending order.
Danny Boyle’s smooth, sexy, psychological neo-noir is a vibrant and visceral thriller that fuses both internal and external conflicts in surprising and exciting ways. For all his cultural success with Oscars and Olympics, Boyle never loses his sense of fun, and Trance is fun on all levels, even when it’s being nasty. Trance may be the year’s slickest film, drawing great parallels between movies and the mind.
4. Man of Steel
Many have been disappointed with Zack Snyder’s reboot of Superman, but I was very impressed by it. I’ll post a full review in the future, but for now, it is swell, in more ways than one.
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
Derek Cianfrance’s haunting follow-up to Blue Valentine combines intimate style with epic scale. I was surprised by the three consecutive stories when I would expect a simultaneous, multi-stranded narrative that intercuts between its strands, but I like to be surprised in the cinema if it works, and in this case it does. The almost circular narrative of fathers’ sins being revisited on their sons justifies the epic weight of the film, and the intimate style ensures that the viewer is there every step of the way.
Steven Spielberg’s finest film since Munich, Lincoln is an enthralling political drama. Daniel Day-Lewis’ monumental performance as Abraham Lincoln received the plaudits and awards, but props are due to the whole cast, including Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris and especially Tommy Lee Jones as the firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. Probably the year’s most compelling drama of words.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is one of the tensest cinema experiences I have ever had. Despite knowing the ending, I was gripped from start to finish and, for the final hour, had every muscle clenched (had I stood, the seat would have come with me). Naysayers who accuse it of justifying torture are simply wrong, because the film displays no link between information gathered under torture and the eventual success of the mission. Furthermore, this success is not presented as any sort of triumph, as the film’s conclusion expresses a sombre hollowness. Not only is ZDT a very fine thriller, but it is a grim and sobering depiction of obsession and a bleak world bereft of satisfaction. Nothing cheerful, but so far, film of the year.
Django Unchained is a Tarantino film. No matter what else can be said about Django Unchained, it is very much WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO. This brings with it a great deal of baggage, and not all the baggage is good. On the plus side, Tarantino is a very skilled writer, delivering dialogue that is witty and urbane, eloquent without being forced. His plots require and reward attention, and he can structure an individual scene and set piece superbly. As a case in point, the introduction of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Django Unchained, his banter with two slave owners and the (literal) unchaining of Django (Jamie Foxx), is a master class in tension and dark humour.
Tarantino has great strength as a director of actors as well. Christoph Waltz has now won two Oscars for his performances in Tarantino’s films, and Django Unchained also features outstanding displays from Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. This is perhaps due to Tarantino taking a step back and allowing his actors to enjoy his dialogue, resulting in conversation scenes which are longer than many other directors would allow. These sequences can also be extremely tense, such as when Calvin Candy (DiCaprio) explains the biological differences between white and black people, and when the threat of imminent death literally bursts into the scene, Calvin transforms into a ferocious demon. By prolonging the scene, the tension is all the greater.
This prolonging though, is indicative of Tarantino’s greatest weakness: self-indulgence. Tarantino the director seems incapable or unwilling of restricting Tarantino the writer. Not only are dialogue scenes prolonged, but so are action sequences, particularly the big shoot-out in which several of the film’s main players are killed. This sequence is unnecessarily protracted with excessive amounts of agonised screaming and blood spatter. Worse, there are scenes that do not progress the plot and, while they may work individually, they slow the narrative and make the film bloated and flabby. Ridiculing the Klu Klux Klan (and possibly Birth of a Nation) is all very well, but it does not aid Django and Schultz’s quest for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Similarly, having Stephen (Jackson) regale Django with details of his impending doom gives Jackson a chance to be very very nasty, but it serves little other purpose, as Stephen’s despicable nature has already been established by this point.
I could go on, as there are many indulgent moments and unnecessary scenes in Django Unchained, which add up to a bloated, overlong film that lacks pace and is sorely in need of discipline. Of course, perhaps I only say this because I am accustomed to films that are made by directors without Tarantino’s creative freedom, with producers demanding that the film come in under a certain time so there can be more screenings in a day to generate greater revenue. Harvey Weinstein clearly trusts the Tarantino brand enough that the film’s length won’t harm its box office (and let’s not forget that the extremely successful Gone With the Wind and Titanic are even longer than Django Unchained, so the industrial logic of shorter films may well be hokum). Perhaps Tarantino is to be admired for not restricting his films, letting them play out at a leisurely and unhurried pace. But that doesn’t stop the director’s cameo being unnecessary and very frustrating.
Tarantino has stated that his intention with Django Unchained was to put slavery up front and present it honestly. Whether the details of this presentation are correct or not is beside the point, because the premise of slavery presented in Django Unchained is one of utter dehumanisation. Black people, within the institution of slavery as it appears in Django Unchained, are treated as inferior beings in every possible way. Calvin’s (literal) dissection of the reasons for this inferiority is chilling in its absurdity, and the physical violence inflicted on slaves is utterly horrific. Examples include being locked in a metal box in the hot sun; whipping; physical combat that leads to fatal injuries and, in perhaps the film’s most upsetting scene, a pack of dogs are set upon a would-be escapee. These scenes are oddly juxtaposed with more over-the-top violence, such as the four shoot-outs that occur towards the end of the film. As mentioned above, one goes on for a long time with much wailing and spraying. Another is comical in its abruptness and suddenness. Django’s final revenge is drawn out and, again, over the top to the point of absurdity.
These moments of “Tarantino-esque” violence are pure spectacle, almost amusing in their excess, very different to the violence inflicted upon slaves, which is presented as mundane. This normalcy exacerbates the cruelty of the violence, convincingly expressing the dehumanising perspective of slavery, which provokes revulsion and dismay on the part of the viewer. It may be trite and obvious to say that slavery is bad, but Tarantino makes an effective presentation on just how bad it is to view and treat people in such a way. He has been criticised on many occasions for his use of the word “nigger”, but in Django it is used appropriately and not excessively. Django Unchained is an excessive film, but not in terms of its language and violence.
This utilisation of violence to express man’s inhumanity to man makes Django Unchained Tarantino’s most interesting film politically. The flippant nihilism of Pulp Fiction and the genre homages of Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill stand in sharp contrast to Django Unchained’s angry condemnation of racism, inviting comparisons with Blazing Saddles. Jackie Brown commented on the difficulties facing particular demographics, especially a black woman over the age of forty with a criminal record, but did not explore these ideas in depth. Inglourious Basterds is a love letter to cinema and its potential for propaganda, part of which is explored in its amusing disregard for history, but it doesn’t make much of a statement. Django Unchained demonstrates Tarantino’s canny understanding of cinema and the different uses of its features.
It is especially interesting to compare Django to Lincoln. Both are concerned with slavery, and set within ten years of each other, 1858 for Django and 1865 for Lincoln. One is explicit, gory, brutal and violent; the other is reserved and concerned with political procedure and debate. Oddly, both are very wordy, the scripts of Tarantino as well as Tony Kushner featuring extensive dialogue scenes, but Steven Spielberg is a more economical director than Tarantino, editing more ruthlessly and using intercutting as a means to generate tension and suspense. Both approaches are valid, but I find the classical technique of Spielberg more effective because it is more dynamic. While Tarantino can be dynamic, there is an overly staged quality to his films as a whole, whereas Spielberg’s style is fluid and flows easily from scene to scene, creating a more unified cinema experience.
I much prefer Lincoln to Django, partly because I prefer intercutting to long scenes, and also because I adore political dramas. Spielberg’s finest film since Munich, Lincoln has been described as The West Wing in wigs, and while I have never seen The West Wing, if it’s anything like Lincoln I know I will like it. Political dramas are tremendously entertaining because the delight is in the detail, the precise perusal of principle paralleled with persuasion to produce policy. Lincoln could be described as a film about talking. Aside from the central debates over the amendment to the Constitution, as well as the end of the Civil War, there are various personal alliances and dramas that play out in conference rooms, bedrooms and other domestic spaces. When I first heard about Lincoln, and saw the trailers, I expected an epic war drama with vast battle scenes, as Spielberg delivered in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse. Instead, it is one of his most intimate films, dealing with interpersonal dramas in the midst of great upheaval, emphasising the importance of talking in the progression of human civilisation. Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife, Mary (Sally Field) have severe family problems, as Mary suffers from mental health problems and their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desperately wants to fight in the war, against the wishes of his parents. While Abe listens to Mary’s advice, he acts against it and grants Robert’s wishes, driving Mary closer to a breakdown in some truly heartbreaking scenes. It is testament to the skill of the filmmakers that these scenes do not feel out of place or a distraction from the political posturing and pontificating.
Various politicians debate the 13th Amendment and its political impact, including dry witticisms in their offices as well as impassioned speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. As Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is on especially fine form, playing a firebrand abolitionist whose frail physicality belies the passion of his words and the strength of his resolve. If there was any flaw in Lincoln for me, it was that I wanted more of Stevens – his solitary limp out of the House once the Amendment is passed suggested a great deal more, a history that it would be interesting to see. Perhaps someone else could make a film about this courageous and impassioned advocate for human rights. But please bring back Tommy Lee Jones to play him!
In contrast to Django Unchained, Lincoln is less concerned with the representation of cruelty so much as the political topic of slavery, emphasised by the multiple scenes of abolition being debated. Like Django, Lincoln has some chilling moments in which slavery and racism are justified, in eloquent and (almost) persuasive ways. What makes these speakers so repulsive is that they are not stupid rednecks but intelligent, educated men, mostly lawyers, so their political stance is one born of belief in their own superiority and righteousness. This gives Lincoln contemporary resonance, as eloquent, educated speakers with dangerous political agendas are just as prominent today as in 1865, and many are in prominent positions of power. In the centre of Lincoln’s battle between the pro and anti-slavery factions stands the figure of Lincoln himself, on whom the film casts an interesting light. He is presented as both saintly crusader for social justice (which Lincoln most likely was not), and a canny politician (which he must have been). Whether the film is historically accurate or not is irrelevant, because what it aims to do is show the balance between idealism and pragmatism, which is exactly what Lincoln does, brokering deals and promises in order to obtain the votes he needs to get the amendment through. Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly captures this balance, and combines it with impassioned resolve and palatable personal pain. A towering performance that rightly won Best Actor.
Django Unchained and Lincoln explore ideas around slavery in different ways. Tarantino’s “Southern” is typically referential, both to the Western genre that it pays homage to as well as to movie violence and its potential more generally, striking deep notes in its depiction of the psychology that justifies slavery. Spielberg’s account of the 13th Amendment is sombre and monumental, but never treats its weighty subject matter as anything other than human actions and decisions. This ensures the film does not slip into preachy or patronising territory, but truly treats slavery as a political and economic issue, as well as an ideological one. This is what impressed me most about Lincoln – it takes the notion of romance in politics, a highly dangerous proposition, and manages to walk the line between romanticising major historical events and presenting them rationally. Perhaps inevitably for Spielberg, there is an ultimate slide into sentimentality with Lincoln’s death, much as Django’s final revenge is gratification for the audience who have waited for it. But whereas Django Unchained suffers from indulgence, Lincoln’s precision and poise ensure that it makes its point, but is never less than thoroughly involving.
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.