LFF #9 – Argo

Welcome to our ongoing coverage of this year’s London Film Festival. We’ll be going live with an in-depth review of a specific film that’s playing at this year’s festival daily, while you can keep an eye on our Twitter feed for broader reaction.

It would appear that no analytical piece on the work of Ben Affleck is truly complete without mention being made of his former life, and the leaps and bounds with which the American actor/writer/director has come on since then. Having first impressed the critical community with the seemingly out-of-nowhere directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, and reiterated that sense of promise with 2010’s The Town, the praise being aimed in the general direction of this, his third work from behind the camera has been almost deafening, with Argo an early frontrunner for the 2012 academy award for Best Picture, Director, Beard and Performance From A Male Actor.

The film itself is ultimately an old-fashioned romp, albeit one dressed up in a light political dressage. Affleck’s intentions are made clear by his adoption of Saul Bass’s 1970’s Warner Bros. logo, which brings with it memories of a period which merged haute politics with haute entertainment, through films like Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men and Syndney Pollack’s Three Days of The Condor. Following a brief animated prologue the political element in Argo takes a back seat, with the focus instead shifting towards the immediate situation at hand. Affleck translates what was essentially a lengthy bureaucratic exchange between three nations (Canada, Iran and the US) in to a traditional Hollywood thriller. The focus on the piece is not on the procedural particulars, but on Tony Mendez, a cool as a cucumber exfiltration (as per infiltration) expert tasked with the removal/rescue of a group of American civil servants working in Iran when the Islamic Revolution came in to being. Mendez, in a tale based upon a true story, resorts to Hollywood to construct a subterfuge in order to complete mission.

The role of the film industry makes for a neat analogy: Hollywood makes up stories every day, and primarily so for financial purposes. While Argo takes place a decade or so before the conglorasition of the major studios, it does sit firmly in the space-time continuum that was defined by the rise of the blockbuster, and the era that marked the second gold rush of the film industry. George Lucas’s Star Wars, and it’s predecessor The Planet Of The Apes, directly inspire the plot device within the text of the film, so for Affleck to draw from this period a tale that presents Hollywood in a non-financially motivated, for-the-good-of-mankind type of way is of interest. An exaggerated version of the deteriorated Hollywood sign sits in the background, which while something of an exaggeration (the sign was actually fully restored by 1979) makes a nice point. Hollywood was going through a state of transition. The most direct comparison between the world of the real, and the world of the reel is made during one of the film’s key sequences, as news footage charting the plight of the Americans in Iran is juxtoposed with a make-believe read through of the fictional film at the centre of the work. The real, real, real goes up against the fictional, fictional, fictional.

The light hearted nature of the American side of the story is offset by the occasional glimpse in to the serious state of an Iran-in-transition in 1979. While the blockbuster revolution that rode through Hollywood in this period has led many a cinephile to dramatically shed tears over the loss of an American cinema that was for artistically driven the Iranian revolution that swept through that country at the same time. The sight of a burning US flag is the first moving image that greets the viewer in Argo, followed by a combination of found footage and wide-scale dramatic recreations giving a great sense of the volatile nature of the times. Whilst undoubtably visually arresting, it’s the sound that really sets the tone here, with an absolute sense of dread encouraged by the chanting and chaotic rushing being presented audibly. A keen sense of tension fills the presentation from the off, with the viewer periodically reminded of the seriousness of the situation at masterfully timed intervals. As an exercise in tension building and the archetypical thriller the film is very successful.

Any work ground in the Middle East, regardless of temporal setting is bound to provoke certain feelings in the viewer, and while there are a number of contemporary bouncing points towards the now in Argo they don’t feel especially overplayed or jingoistic. If anything they’re downplayed, with the “invisible” nature of the film’s protagonist decreeing that the figure is robbed of public congratulation by picture’s end. It’s a refreshing, if not curious turn of play, and one summed up by one character’s declaration that “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus”.

When compared next to Affleck’s earlier directorial works Argo can’t help but feel a little restricted. Where Gone Baby Gone and The Town felt autobiographical Argo is anecdotal, and wholly constructed, and while the hyper-stylisation of an unfamiliar subject is by no means the kiss of death for any work of the cinema for a filmmaker to who location and place was key Argo can’t help but feel a little lacking in identity (comparisons citing Argo next to the minor Hollywood-Serious Wave of entertaining politico drama’s from 2005 have already been made, and it does actually feel a little regressive to see Affleck produce a work of this ilk). These qualms aside, Argo remains a terrifically entertaining HOLLYWOOD production (capitals intentional), and offers further evidence that the unlikeliest of men is indeed one of his industry’s brightest talents.

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