Film Review: Argo (dir. by Ben Affleck)

When I made out my list of my 26 favorite films of 2012, Argo came in at number 19,  I think that Argo is a likable, funny, and frequently exciting film.  Not only does it feature some of Ben Affleck’s best work as a director (though I still think Affleck has yet to top Gone, Baby, Gone) but also some of his best work as an actor.  If The Town left my skeptical about Affleck’s film-making talents, Argo made me a believer again.  That said, while I think that Argo is a good film, I don’t think it’s a great film but that opinion definitely places me in both the minority of filmgoers and, since my sister Erin considers Argo to be the best film of 2012, Bowmans as well.

Based on a true story, Argo takes place in 1979.  The Shah of Iran has been overthrown and the American embassy in Tehran is overrun by Islamic militants.  Over 50 Americans are taken hostage but six embassy workers manage to escape and end up hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).  The U.S. State Department has to find a way to get the six of them out of Iran before the militants discover their existence.

It’s up to CIA agent Tony Mendez (played, of course, by Ben Affleck) to come up with a better plan than attempting to smuggle bicycles into Iran.  Mendez’s scheme is to team up with a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and a B-movie producer (Alan Arkin) and to convince the Iranian government that he and the 6 embassy workers are actually a film crew and that they’re in Iran not on a rescue-and-escape mission but instead to scout locations for a science fiction film called Argo.

Argo, for the most part, works.  As a director, Affleck manages to deftly juggle both comedy and suspense.  The scenes where Arkin and Goodman teach Affleck how to be a Hollywood phony are frequently hilarious, while the scenes in Iran are effectively tense and claustrophobic.  The film is full of little period details that ring true and I’m still shocked that Argo didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for either Best Costume Design or Best Production Design.  The wide lapels on Ben Affleck’s suits may not have been as flamboyant as the costumes in Les Miserables but, like the costumes in Les Mis, the very sight of them not only transported us to a different time but made that time plausible as well.

As you might expect from an actor-turned-director, Affleck gets good performances from his entire cast.  Goodman and Arkin are both sympathetic as recognizable Hollywood types and Bryan Cranston has a few good scenes as a fellow CIA agent.  While the 6 hostages are all pretty much interchangeable, they are still all well-cast and sympathetic.

That said, when I saw the film, it was hard to escape the feeling that the first half of the film (in which the embassy workers hid out at the Ambassador’s house while Affleck, Arkin, and Goodman worked on promoting their fake film) was dramatically more interesting and compelling than the far more conventional second half.  Once Affleck actually reaches Tehran, Argo becomes a rather predictable, if still well-made and exciting, movie.  Perhaps that’s why, as much as I enjoyed Argo, the film didn’t make as much of an impression of me as a film with a more challenging narrative would have.  Ultimately, Argo tells the true story of people in tremendous danger but the film itself feels very safe.

Argo is one of the most acclaimed films of 2012 and it’s been nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture.  To just about everyone’s surprise, Ben Affleck was not nominated for best director.  While I personally would not have nominated either Argo or Affleck, the fact of the matter is that the reason Argo has received so much acclaim is because of Affleck’s work behind the camera.  Argo is such a director’s film that it’s next to impossible to argue that Argo‘s one of the best films of the year without also arguing that Affleck is one of the best directors of the year.  Hence, Affleck’s lack of a nomination does feel like a definite snub.  Even speaking as someone who was not as enthralled with Argo as much as everyone else, I would still have nominated Affleck long before I wasted a nomination on Benh Zeitlin for relying too much on a hand-held camera while filming Beasts of the Southern Wild.

While the Academy may have snubbed Affleck, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association did not.  Earlier this night, Affleck won the Golden Globe for best director and Argo won best picture.  (Though, I have to say, I find myself wondering if my friend Jason Tarwater was right when he suggested that the notorious starfuckers of the HFPA honored Argo mostly because they wanted to hang out with the film’s co-producer, George Clooney.)  Given the fact that it’s been over 20 years since a film won Best Picture without receiving a nomination for Best Director, Affleck and Clooney might just have to be happy with the universal acclaim.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Review (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

“Zero Dark Thirty” opens with the sounds of frantic emergency calls from people trapped inside the World Trade Center. Their cries for help to dispatchers, played over a black screen, is a shocking reminder of the horrors of 9/11, and sets the tone for what is to come – the brutal and riveting retelling of the dark paths and dead ends this country traveled in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for those attacks.

What makes “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film with an ending we all already know, so effective is how tautly it depicts the events that led up to bin Laden’s death in such an intellectually and morally challenging way. There is no flash, no melodrama, no varnished surfaces or sanded edges to make the material more bearable or ‘entertaining’, it simply tells it as it is. This is done with meticulous detail by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. They tell this story through the eyes of a female CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, whose obsession with finding bin Laden was the driving force that led to his death. This performance by Chastain, who carries the film, is quite astonishing. She displays such a wonderful level of assurance, confidence and determination but also the weight of her obsession – doing most of this with her eyes. We know nothing about her character other than the work she did to find bin Laden but we still root for her the whole way. It is one of those subtle but powerful performances that will be remembered for much longer than any other performance this year.

Now, at this point in time, it would be impossible to write a review without addressing some of the criticisms the film has drawn. Honestly, I have to say that I find it quite disheartening that morally insecure and intellectually lazy people have tried to bring the film down for not making moral decisions for them. I am disgusted by the claims that the film is pro-torture for not taking a side as to whether such techniques as water boarding are right or wrong. The simple fact is it doesn’t have to. It isn’t the films responsibilities to do such things. All it wishes to do is relay the facts, as it knows them. It is then up to the audience, based on what they see, to make these decisions.

It is true that in doing so it reveals some truths, many we might not like, that makes us reexamine the past decade of American history. But this is what makes the film more than just a masterfully crafted thriller. There is no arguing this country has had some very dark moments over the past decade  – Abu Ghraib – and the search for revenge to capture or kill those responsible for 9/11 was the driving force of most of this. In making “Zero Dark Thirty” Bigelow and Boal aren’t trying to say whether any of this was right or wrong, but rather they looked to remind us that it did happen and challenges us to question how it truly effected us all and make the decisions ourselves as to the moral nature and effectiveness of torture and war; while at the same time allowing us to appreciate and honor the hard work and sacrifice of those who gave so much in trying to protect this country.

This is made quite clear at the end of the film with its final shot, which I think is perhaps one of the most important in any film in recent years. After the films harrowing opening and what comes after – the remembrance of the horrors of 9/11, the journey down the dark paths revenge took us, including torture and the horrors of war – we are disgusted by what happened, but like the films main character we knew it was happening yet we kept moving forward because we had our ‘eyes on the prize’. In the end, after all was said and done, it is hard to truly rejoice when the full weight of what had happened is realized. Chastain’s face in the films final moment sums this up perfectly. A sort of “what now…was it worth it…what parts of ourselves were lost to accomplish or fight this war on terror?” We killed the man who essentially started this war, a sliver of justice was delivered to those who have lost family and friends, but that war didn’t end with his death, and it will always haunt us no matter how many body bags we fill. The implications of this scene, and the whole film, are bigger than any scene or any film in recent memory.

Thinking back, it is quite amazing how well the whole emotional trajectory of the film so well mirrors the emotional trajectory of this country in the last ten years. From its black screen opening to the close up of Chastain before the credits, “Zero Dark Thirty” intimately reflects on the sadness and shock, that led to anger and war, that was followed by frustration, that led to apathy, which ultimately ended with rejoice…only to quickly then be overshadowed by the full weight of post-9/11 America and where the past decade has left us. It is because of this that I think “Zero Dark Thirty” is not only the best but also the most important film of 2012, or even in recent years. It is a masterfully and tautly crafted thriller that challenges the viewer in ways that will leave us talking about it for years to come. Its moral ambiguity and apolitical stance reveal truths usually overshadowed by preachy, overtly political films of the same nature. If that isn’t the formula for a modern masterpiece, then I don’t know what is.

*Read Arleigh’s comment below for his perfect expansion on the feelings towards the criticisms the film has drawn*