Sunday, 28 October 2012
ARGO - Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - Propaganda 4 U & Me
ARGO (2012) **
dir. Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Everybody loves ARGO.
Well, on the surface, there's no reason for anyone to hate it. Directed by Ben Affleck who affably plays CIA "extractor" Tony Mendez, it's a perfectly competent fictionalized portrait of the real life rescue of American embassy workers in Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Personally, I have little use for the picture. I'll admit the movie has a clutch of fine performances (notably Affleck himself and a shamefully underused Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador who hides the American hostages in his own home) and that Affleck as a director handles a number of sequences with reasonable intelligence and some surprising flair. In particular, I was impressed with the entire unique set-up of the rescue, a tense scene in the Tehran Market and the final 15 minutes or so during the "escape" - especially when some Iranian border guards get bamboozled by the magic of movies - a scene that's as tense as it's vaguely offensive.
Still, I am indifferent to the picture on one hand and a bit disgusted with it on the other. My indifference has much to do with where the emphasis of the rescue is placed and my disgust is with the fake Liberalism used to mask the intentional (or, possibly unintentional) propagandistic elements and its racism (or at best, I'll allow ethnocentrism and/or intolerance) towards the Iranian people.
The emphasis upon Tony Mendez is, for me, a surprisingly dull and easy approach to the story. Much time is spent developing Mendez, a brilliant CIA operative who specializes in rescues. Frankly though, I could care less about someone who - no matter how good he is at his job - still works for one of the most evil entities on the planet. Secondly, the piddling problems Mendez encounters with his marriage and, by extension, the lack of physical proximity to his son, seem pathetically limp compared to those Americans who are hiding in Iran, those who are held hostage and in particular, the Canadian diplomat and his wife who risk their lives hiding the American embassy workers in their own home.
A much better, but probably less commercial movie exists where more emphasis is placed on the trapped Americans than Mendez. Affleck and his writers spend some time with them, to be sure, but the movie that will probably never be made would have immersed us wholly in the terrifyingly claustrophobic situation they found themselves in, but most importantly it would have thoroughly involved us in these people as human beings rather than the Syd Field 101 paintbrush swipes of "character" they get in the current movie.
What's especially disingenuous (and kind of insulting to the survivors) is how the movie expects us to FEEL for them BECAUSE they are AMERICANS rather than people. They're character types with only one extra thin layer of flesh. But, Good Goddamn, they is 'Murrikins and they need sum reskoo'in, y'heah?
Why should this surprise me? A somewhat rhetorical question, I fear, since the movie has been skilfully crafted as entertainment designed to reel in as much revenue as possible and generate boxoffice legs with its jingoistic (albeit more insidiously subtle) propaganda.
The Canadian protectors, the Ambassador and his wife, are given considerable short shrift in this affair. I'm not just saying this because I was born on Canadian soil and far more proud of the role Canada played in the whole affair, but part of me thinks the Canadian ambassador and his wife had a whole lot more to lose than Mendez. He's worrying about his stupid marriage and whether or not his brilliant scheme will have the rug pulled out from under it by the bureaucrats. Worse yet, poor Mendez wins an award from the CIA for his actions, but for security reasons, nobody will ever know save for himself and a small group of colleagues (at least until the sealed files are opened long afterwards).
Do I hear violin strings?
Hark, I do.
Cry me a fucking river.
Let's look at our Iranian brothers and how they're portrayed. There's nary a one of them who go beyond type (though we're shown ONE "good" Iranian who doesn't betray the Canadian Ambassador and his American "house guests"). During Argo's opening scenes we're plunged into that day in 1980 when thousands of angry Iranians marched upon the American embassy and eventually set foot on "American" soil to take Uncle Sam's workers as political prisoners. In an admittedly skillful blend of news, archival and recreated dramatic footage, we see the good, decent, terrified, clean and well-dressed Americans quivering, but ultimately maintaining a professional calm while thousands of screaming, jabbering "Ay-Rabbs" foam at the mouth with anger and blood-lust.
This is how the movie opens.
As the racism and ethnocentrism in the picture progresses, the Iranians are portrayed as evil, devious or worse, stupid bozos more enamoured with American popular culture than doing their jobs.
The fact that this situation has been brought on by America's greed and deception (that began 30 years BEFORE the events of this film), is virtually ignored by the movie (save for a tiny nod that's revealed early on, then thrown away in the cacophony of raging Iranians).
Pardon me all to Hell, but I find this utterly reprehensible.
Will there ever come a time when we'll see a mainstream American movie unapologetically point fingers directly at its own country's subservience to wealth and oligarchical rule as being the real cause of this strife and, in fact, where we find ourselves now? The ignorance and fundamentalism of the Middle East is frankly no worse than that which exists in America (and throughout much of the West). As well, on both sides of the fence there are reasonable, intelligent, caring people, but in Hollywood, the notion that they exist in Iran is snubbed entirely.
The 70s, once again, was a period in American film history when mainstream Hollywood was more than happy to scrutinize the relationship between corporate rule and politics in the good old U. S. of A. The list of harrowing, intelligent, entertaining and even commercial films that ploughed into this territory is almost without limit. The films, as they rightly should, acknowledged the decency of the American people, but condemned those Americans who pulled the strings for personal wealth of a very small minority. (Let's not forget, for example, Cimino's brilliant, powerful and audacious ending to The Deer Hunter that manages to have its cak and eat it too by expressing both love AND disgust for America in one fell swoop.)
Yes, Mendez had a great idea - to pretend he and the trapped Americans were a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for a trashy science fiction exploitation movie. Yes, Affleck delivers a great, commanding performance as Mendez, as do John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood guys who secretly and selflessly assist with this ruse to free the Americans in Iran. But that's not what the film is lacking. It has no moral centre - especially not within a more balanced political context.
At the end of the day, ALL cinema is political (to varying degrees). Hell, even a Pauly Shore comedy is "political". ARGO is a rescue film, to be sure, but one that is set against a political backdrop - a political backdrop in which America has wreaked considerable havoc upon (to this very day). To ignore this (or worse, pay brief lip service to it as Affleck's film does before flushing it), as 95% of the critics polled on Rotten Tomatoes have done speaks as much about the dying art of film criticism as well as how American Cinema, more than ever before, is linked almost inextricably to the New World Order that really controls America.
Examining the film by using the strict definitions of the word "racism", ARGO is, as a story, completely and utterly discriminatory with respect to Iran (and the Middle East in general). Other than Mendez, the film's script simplistically glosses over every other character - any of whom are far more interesting than Mendez. This is where the script errs as "art", but as "industry", it's perfect. Alas, the best films strive for a balance or a bit of ambiguity which, interestingly enough, can actually up the dramatic stakes and tension rather than muting them. Affleck is probably a bit too single minded for that. What he ultimately delivers is a modestly successful (in artistic terms) rescue story. End of story.
Granted, Affleck has been influenced by the memoirs of Mendez himself. No offence to Mendez. He does what HE does which is, by all accounts, very well accomplished. He told HIS story from HIS perspective. He can't be blamed for the film's failure as art, only Affleck can be chastised for his poor choice.
That said, I'm certainly not looking for the BEST or most "accurate" rendering of the story anyway. I do, however believe, given all the elements one could choose to focus on within two hours, that the underlying material offers any number of compelling tales. Affleck chose the simplest, easiest and frankly, most susceptible route to promote neanderthal politics. It is perfectly acceptable to criticize his choice and by extension, to imagine one (of many) approaches that might have rendered a genuinely great film. It's not great, either. Not even close.
Even WITH the script AS IS, I wonder what Pollack, Lumet, Frankenheimer, Siegel or (especially) Pakula or Kaufman (think back on their gifts of creating paranoia of the highest order during the 70s) might have brought to the directorial table to strip away the jingoistic elements of the tale and examine, in an entertaining way, the completely fucked American belief that the country can do no wrong.
In spite of ARGO's occasional virtues, I still can't help but think that a better movie could have been made without the propagandistic sledgehammer and that subsequently (and I think, more harrowingly) could have brought us "in" to the story via the Canadian Ambassador and the trapped Americans themselves. What we're left with is a CIA lifer who, in spite of the brilliantly unorthodox methods he employs in this case (and presumably others), is that he's just doing his job and, as his character keeps repeating throughout the film, doing what he does best.
Sickeningly, in this day and age, what drives ARGO is someone who is just doing his job, and even though Mendez might well be a Schindler-like figure above all else within the CIA - especially for what he accomplished in Iran - he did it for a regime that asked for what it got in the first place, an agency which, in spite of the inherent goodness of those it purports to protect, the American people, is as evil as those throughout history whom we should never, ever forget.
God rest their souls, but I suspect both Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein are beaming as they look down from the celestial celluloid Heavens, waiting for Affleck's eventual ascension to join them in a Holy Trinity of using art to extol the virtues of butchers.
However, I ultimately believe ARGO is MEDIOCRE propaganda that contemporary audiences in these days of civilization's decline are gobbling up like hogs at a trough. That's extremely depressing to me. (Come to think of it, I'll take ONE of Leni Riefenstahl's pubic hairs or perhaps TWO of Eisenstein's nostril hairs over ALL that someone like Affleck has to offer at any given moment.)
ARGO is a watchable movie. It plays into the fears of those manipulated by the New World Order. Time, it seems, for Oscar to come a calling.
"ARGO" is playing in wide release all over the world. And yes, it's a hit. Hooray for Hollywood!