Monday, October 29, 2012

"Thoughts About 'Argo'"

First of all, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the filmmakers to the people from my hometown who went to Argo, believing it was a movie about the Toronto football team.  They could have been a lot clearer about that, and they weren’t.  There are no disclaimers in the ads saying, “Neither Dick Shatto nor Cookie Gilchrist will be mentioned in this movie.”  This was blatant deception to entice Canadian Football League fans into a movie that is not about Canadian football.  Such behavior is simply inexcusable. And I will leave it at that.


I was once, for a short time – six episodes – a movie critic on a local television show.  It was there I learned the difference between a moviegoer and a movie critic.  Moviegoers see movies they want to see.  Movie critics are required to see everything.

As a result of this onslaught of terribleness, movie critics are driven to overpraise movies that do not make them want to rip the eyes out of their sockets and slam themselves repeatedly on the cranium with a shovel.  A less graphic description is that the movie critics start marking on the curve.  As a result of having been bombarded with garbage, a pretty good movie gets elevated to “Must See” status.

And so we have Argo.

As I have oft repeated, I try not to say a creative undertaking is good or bad.  I can only say what it felt like to me.  I liked Argo.  Maybe even quite a bit.  But, while registering my positive reaction, I could sense alongside that reaction the palpable sense of relief that this time, I had attended a movie that wasn’t terrible.  Which may have halo-lighted my reaction.

Argo tells a wonderful story, one that was only recently declassified, which explains why it has not been told before.  When the Iranians in 1979, invaded the American Embassy in Tehran, six embassy employees escaped and sought sanctuary from the hordes who took their co-workers hostage (for 444 days.)  At this point – because it happened in the actual story – the movie atones for misleading Torontonians expecting to see (standout Toronto Argonaut quarterback) Doug Flutie on the big screen.

The story tells us that the six embassy escapees sought protection from the “Kiwis” of New Zealand, and were turned away.  They were also sent packing by the “Brits.” Imagine that.  A plucky nation that had withstood the “Blitz” thought it too dicey to take in the six American escapees. 

Who finally gave them refuge?

The Canadian Ambassador!


Meanwhile, back in America, they come up with what is considered to be the “best bad plan” to get the six Americans out of the country:  They will invent a fake movie purportedly to be filmed in Iran, pretend the Americans are part of a team of Canadian filmmakers making a brief, exploratory visit, and then, with falsified Canadian passports, spirit them out of the country.  The man who will spearhead the operation is CIA operative Ben Affleck, who also produced and directed the movie.  Not the fake movie.  Argo.  (Though, if memory serves, Affleck produced the fake movie as well.)

This is, to me, a wonderful story, one that, though I am no expert in these matters, I believe would make a spine-chilling and identifiably personal – because it happened to actual people – movie.

When you have a great story to tell, your objective as a filmmaker is to, at the very least, not screw it up.  Though I’m not sure this is the high praise those attached to the filmmakers were hoping for, it is my opinion that Argo did not screw up the story.

I have quibbles about the story.  Duh.  When do I not?  You say, “It’s a real story, so they had to follow what happened.”  No.  Movies are not required to be historically accurate.  And, I have read, Argo is not – they apparently extended the final escape sequence to amplify the suspense. 

In my view, if they were tinkering with the structure, they could have expanded the length of time the escapees had to prepare for their “make or break” confrontation with Iranian government officials at the airport. 

Instead, the Ben Affleck character says, “I am taking you out tomorrow.”

One day of preparation?  This is a wasted opportunity for “Building to the Moment.”  In The Great Escape, it was weeks before they finally escaped.   Another taut thriller, Three Days of the Condor – that’s three days of edge-of-your-seat excitement.  Although I was recently informed that the source book for that movie was called Five (actually I've been told, six) Days of the Condor.  Okay, a movie requires condensation.  But one day is too condensed. 

The actors playing the six escapees were believably apprehensive, bordering on freaked out.  Ben Affleck, however, made up for his charges’ jitters by being a wooden lump.  Affleck’s performance was remote and emotion-free, Obama during the first debate.  It was like while he was acting, he was thinking about directing.  And he forgot to direct himself to act.

None of this matters.  Because the climax – the plane’s final takeoff from Iran with the Iranian military in hot pursuit, is bang on the money.

A few months after it was over, I bought a video chronicling the Toronto Blue Jays winning the World Series in 1992.  As I watched that video, I experienced moments that were so tense and uncertain, I was actually frightened they were going to lose.  

I'm pacing around like a crazy man, my heart is pounding, my stomach is in knots.  I kept having to remind myself, "They won!  They won!"

It was the same with the climactic moment of Argo.  I knew they got away.  And yet, the way the “Departure Moment” was paced, performed and edited, you could easily believe that the plane had been called back at the last second, “The Six”, plus Ben Affleck, apprehended, and marched off to their doom.  Not all stories end happily.  I still haven’t gotten over The Alamo.  

Though there were winning performances by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, what won me over, and had me hand-pumping like Kirk Gibson rounding the bases was how Argo pulled off that climactic moment.  Though hardly a classic, Argo is crowd-pleasing, professional movie, made from a great story that they didn’t screw up. 

Oh, and one more memorable moment.  In preparing “The Six” to pass for Canadians, one of them was asked to name the last three Canadian Prime Ministers.  (This was 1979.)  From my seat in the dark, I rattled them off before the actor did:

Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, and John Diefenbaker.

Ahhh.  Now that’s a good movie.


Rob Bedford said...

Thanks for the review, I'm looking forward to seeing it. A couple now living in Anacortes, WA was on our local news last night...they were part of the 6 who escaped. They too liked the movie tho advised there was some creative liberties taken. Of course there was! Were?

By the by, 3 Days of the Condor was based upon the James Grady novel, 6 Days of the Condor. That'll probably come up sometime during Jeopardy, but now you're ready!

Cookie Gilchrist? Never thought I'd hear his name again! Hell of a running back.

Mac said...

Sounds good. Look forward to seeing it. Ben Affleck really showed his directorial ability in "Gone Baby, Gone" which, despite a flawed ending, was a solid movie.