Film review – Argo (2012)

18 October 2012
Argo: Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)

Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck’s third feature film as director is based on what has become known as the Canadian Caper, an incident which occurred during the 444 day long hostage situation after the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Six American diplomats who escaped from the embassy hid in the house of the Canadian ambassador and were in great danger of being discovered. The Canadians and the USA Central Intelligence Agency worked together to smuggle the diplomats out of Iran using an elaborate cover story about them being a film crew scouting locations in Tehran for a B-grade science-fiction film titled Argo. While the cover story came under intense scrutiny by the Iranian militants it was designed to deceive, Affleck’s film will no doubt be scrutinised for its portrayal of sensitive events that occurred between countries that still have a precarious relationship. Affleck’s film takes dramatic license with the events to focus predominantly on the CIA’s involvement, in particular the work done by disguise and extraction expert Tony Mendez, whom Affleck also portrays. The resulting film may be based more on the ‘spirit’ of the operation rather than the hard facts, but it successfully manages to be respectful about the turbulent events and function as an exciting Hollywood spy thriller.

Films about Americans in peril while overseas have a disreputable history of diluting all complexity and factual detail for the sake of a formulaic action or thriller scenario. At their worst they are so reductive in the presentation of the issues that they become hyper-conservative and xenophobic works that demonise non-American people and cultures, for example the repugnant Taken films. With Argo Affleck has demonstrated that even when some of the facts have been embellished for dramatic license, it is still possible to make a genre film based on a real Americans in peril incident without resorting to crude nationalism or racism.

Firstly, Argo begins with a terrific summary of the historical background to the US embassy takeover and resulting hostage crisis in order to put the anti-US sentiment from the Iranian Revolutionaries into perspective. The crash-course history lesson establishes how much and how long the US had interfered with Iranian politics out of self interest and how much harm this had done to the Iranian people. So when Affleck shows the audience the shots of the angry Iranians, it is understood where their anger is coming from, which suits the drama of the film since this makes their actions even more terrifying. The contrast between the writhing and yelling bodies filling the streets outside the US embassy gates and the still, empty space inside the embassy grounds is beautifully established by a series of aerial shots. When the revolutionaries break through the gate and swarm towards the embassy buildings, Affleck generates tremendous tension as the embassy workers fight against time to destroy documents and prepare to be confronted by the angry crowd.

The second thing that Argo does so well in terms of representation is continuously remind the audience that the various Iranian militant organisations and individuals who took over the city did not represent all Iranian people. In fact, moderate and impartial members of the Iranian population suffered far more and in far greater numbers than any of the American hostages and Argo doesn’t shy away from portraying this. Nor does it shy away from portraying the very ugly anti-Iranian sentiment from within America to remind the audience of how often entire populations, cultures and religions are unreasonably blamed for the atrocities and crimes committed by their most extremist factions.

While the attempt to present historical context and avoid stereotypes is impressive, these are not elements at the forefront of the film, just impressive details designed to facilitate a suspenseful thriller. In terms of narrative structure Argo is essentially a standard genre film that also happens to be extremely well made. After the tense opening sequence, Affleck takes the film into calmer territory as the focus shifts to America where the bizarre plan, described as ‘the best worst idea’ available, is devised. Affleck is effective as Mendez, whom the film portrays as world-weary and close to hitting rock bottom, to make the character a romantic ideal of a broken man with one last shot at doing something meaningful. When John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel enter the film, a pleasing shift in tone occurs and Argo makes great use of humour to breakup the mood when required. Gags about Hollywood being just as covert and sneaky as espionage may be obvious and easy, but Goodman and Arkin riff so enjoyably that it doesn’t matter. And while at times Argo resembles a reverse Wag the Dog, it never lets the audience forget that a very dangerous and very serious situation underpins everything going on.

The final portion of the film, where the plan is put into action, contains an almost unbearable series of tense moments that are exploited for all they are worth in the best possible way. There is a moment where the cliché of a vehicle that inconveniently won’t start is used; bringing the film dangerously close to breaking its spell, but otherwise Argo keeps the viewer hooked. Affleck very skilfully establishes the characters, the scenario and what is at stake so that the tension is sustained throughout the lengthy finale, making the experience a highly rewarding endurance test. Argo is an excellent thriller, displaying genre filmmaking at its best. It’s refusal to compromise any integrity when it comes to portraying the people involved and the political context makes it all the stronger and should provide a useful benchmark for other films based on true events.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Town (2010)

13 October 2010
The Town: Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck)

Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote the script (based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves) for The Town, a crime thriller/drama set in the Boston suburb Charlestown, which has a reputation for its criminality. He also plays the lead role of bank robber Doug MacRay who is contemplating leaving behind his life of crime. Part of what is motivating him is his new relationship with bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall from Please Give). However, Claire was taken hostage by Doug’s gang and while Doug knows this, she has no idea of what he does for a living let alone the fact that he was one of the people responsible for a recent highly traumatic experience.

It is very difficult discussing The Town without acknowledging its resemblance to Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat. Both films are about a highly professional gang of career criminals, both films depict a relentless man on the side of the law trying to bring the gang to justice and both films explore the dynamics of a criminal attempting to hold a relationship with somebody outside of the crime world. The Town even has a stylistically similar opening sequence where we see the tense build-up and then execution of a heist. However, while the Los Angeles-set Heat was an operatic and slick version of the classic cop-versus-robber story, The Town has more of a gritty aesthetic to it with a lot of emphasis on its Boston working-class neighbourhood setting. In this way it shares a similar look and atmosphere to James Gray’s films such as The Yards and We Own the Night.

The Town: Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)

The Town does suffer from being so derivative of Heat and many other similarly themed crime films. While it is entertaining it lacks a lot of complexity and surprise. Doug is too clearly defined as The Good Thief while the increasingly unpredictable and volatile James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker) is too clearly defined as The Bad Thief. Both Affleck and Renner deliver fantastic performances but the way that their characters develop is too blatantly signposted. Also, despite the promising dramatic intrigue behind the deceptive circumstances under which Doug and Claire fall in love, it is a scenario that is never explored to its full potential.

The Town is a decent crime thriller/drama but it has the veneer of a film with far more substance. The fact that it is as enjoyable and compelling as it is owes a lot to Ben Affleck in his second outing as a director. The action sequences, including a gripping car chase through the extremely narrow Charlestown streets, are exceptionally good. Along side Hollywoodland this is also one of Affleck’s better films as an actor and he is clearly very good at directing other actors, with Hall in particular really standing out. Ultimately The Town works perfectly well as a narrative-driven crime genre film but it falls short of being truly great.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – State of Play (2009)

28 May 2009
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and Della Frye (Rachel McAdams)

State of Play is the second feature length drama directed by the Academy Award winning documentary maker Kevin Macdonald. Previously he directed the incredibly powerful Last King of Scotland and State of Play certainly opens in a way that promises to be just as good. The sequence in which a desperate man fails to get away from a highly trained assassin is given a messy and rough feel through the use of handheld cameras to emphasise the panic and urgency of the situation. The first person style of the cinematography generates a feeling of surveillance and the derelict street setting emphasises the dark world that this film is taking us into. However, this initial stylistic promise soon gives way to a very conventional way of filming, which represents the film for what it is – a typical thriller, combining the core ingredients of a murder investigation, political sex scandal and corporate conspiracy.  There is nothing wrong with a good generic thriller if it sustains interest but unfortunately State of Play gets bogged down in tedious details and two-dimensional characters too early.

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Film review – Hollywoodland (2006)

20 March 2007

Hollywoodland is a terrific based-on-true-events drama about the violent death of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 50s television serial. Due to studio pressure, the police investigating Reeves death quickly write it off as suicide but struggling private detective Louis Simo believes that there are dubious circumstances pointing towards murder.

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