Monday, December 3, 2012

Blogorium Review: Argo

 I was listening to the radio the other day, and a sports commentator decided it was a fair point to compare a team he wasn't fond of to Ben Affleck.

 "Sure," he said "they're having a great season right now, but you can't ask me to forget about what they were doing a few years ago. It's like Ben Affleck - yeah, The Town was great, Argo was great, but you can't just make me forget about Gigli, Reindeer Games, Jersey Girl, Pearl Harbor and Daredevil*."

 The general point (and I know this because sports radio is mostly about repeating the same point over and over again for three hours) was that just because things are good now doesn't mean that we have carte blanche to forget about when they (being it Ben Affleck or the Atlanta Falcons) were terrible. Or, I suppose, maybe it's that we shouldn't forget that they WERE terrible, therefore their recent success needs to be tainted by that.

 It seemed funny to me, because for one thing I don't really see the point in that, but more importantly it seems to reinforce a theory that there are no second acts in show business** (let alone sports, which is a ridiculous notion considering how frequently the makeup of teams change over time). As someone who followed Ben Affleck from small parts in Dazed and Confused to a high school / college student that saw every Kevin Smith movie to a guy who watched his friend lose his grip on reality during Gigli***, I was as skeptical as anyone when Gone Baby Gone came out. I bought into the "Ben Affleck is snarky asshole who makes terrible decisions in film roles" conception of the actor, willfully forgetting that I had seen him in movies I really enjoyed.

 So when Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's directorial debut, was pretty good, I was taken aback a little bit. The concept that a quiet, reflective Ben Affleck had been hiding there all along, that the possibility that Affleck and Damon were more than what anyone expected of them after Good Will Hunting (and certainly after Dogma) was a little revelatory. Matt Damon spent most of the 2000s becoming the action star that Affleck failed to be with Michael Bay and John Frankenheimer, and Affleck sat out leading roles after Surviving Christmas, not because he had "given up" but because he needed time to prove he had more to offer****.

 My polite skepticism continued through The Town, although I will admit I was more interested in seeing The Town than Gone Baby Gone. It was one thing to see Affleck direct a film, it was another entirely for him to direct and star in his sophomore effort, but I'll be damned if that wasn't also a really good movie. Neither are my favorite films of their respective years, but I own both of them and have seen them again since. For whatever choices he made as an actor in the late nineties and early 2000s, Ben Affleck has a fine eye for direction, for choosing compelling stories, and in casting the right actors for the roles. What he may have lacked in front of the camera he certainly made up for behind it.

 Which brings us to Argo, the reason for our unnamed sports pundit's rant. Ben Affleck is (deservedly) getting a lot of positive buzz for his third film, and it may well carry over into awards season, and maybe that rubs people the wrong way. "How dare this Ben Affleck, who I said was a fraud for Good Will Hunting and who was in all those bad movies be the talk of the town now? How dare he???" Well, sports and movie critics, I have to say it's because Argo delivers the goods. And more importantly, Ben Affleck went the extra mile and proved that he isn't just a very good director - he can still carry a movie too.

 Instead of rehashing what Argo is about, or how politically appropriate the story turned out to be our current global climate, I thought I'd focus on something I wasn't expecting from a movie about the Iranian Hostage Crisis: how funny the move is.

 There are large stretches of Argo - mostly while Tony Mendez (Affleck) is setting up the titular fictional film that gets him into Iran - where you'll find yourself laughing quite a bit. Mendez recruits Hollywood makeup effects man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help him buy the script for Argo from writer Max Klein (a great cameo by Richard Kind) and drum up enough publicity to convince the Iranian government that he really is part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Tehran, and not just a specialist for the CIA that rescues hostages like the ones hiding in the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber)'s basement. Most of the midsection of the movie, while Mendez is creating the ruse, is a prolonged jab at Hollywood and movie-making in general, and it lightens the tension of the beginning of the film (which recreates the raid on the American Embassy) and the end of the film (after Mendez touches down in Tehran).

 What I was so impressed by is that it doesn't dilute the tension in the second half of the film, despite the fact that information about Mendez's success or failure is readily available in the public record (or, at least, it is now). Even if you've accidentally heard how the story ends, Argo succeeds in keeping you on the edge of your seat as our protagonist(s) head towards their plane out, even if part of what really happened was "augmented" for cinematic purposes. Affleck maintains the fine balance between self-deprecation and serious business as Argo needs it, and the film is by my estimation more successful than Gone Baby Gone or The Town as a result. They feel like very good dry runs, and Argo is the culmination of what Affleck knew he could do as director and actor. He succeeded, as far as I'm concerned, and I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

 If Argo becomes the second "welcoming" by Hollywood to its prodigal son, I have to say I'd be okay with that. If it was a chocolate Easter Bunny movie - all good flavor, but no substance, then maybe I'd be a little more hesitant, but Argo is both entertaining and substantive. You don't just move on to the next digestible piece of cinema after you're finished, and I look forward to seeing Argo again. If I had my druthers, I think The Master is more ambitious, but it's also more difficult to enjoy, if more interesting to experience. It's easily my favorite Ben Affleck film and is a strong contender to be one of my favorite films of 2012.

 Since I brought up Arkin and Goodman, and so as to not make this entire review about Ben Affleck, I'd like to also point out the fantastic cast of Argo, in large and small roles. Richard Kind (who most of you would remember recently from A Serious Man) has a one scene cameo, and you probably noticed Bryan Cranston (Red Tails - that's what you know him from, right?) and Titus Welliver (The Town, Dinosaur Island) in the trailer, but let's take a look at the many other familiar faces of Argo.

 There's Zeljko Ivanek (In Bruges, Heroes, everything), Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Creepshow), Tom Lenk (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Michael Parks (Kill Bill), Chris Messina (The Newsroom, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and lest I forget the hostages themselves. Affleck intentionally went with actors that looked like the actually hostages and weren't very "well known," which is odd because I immediately recognized Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused), Clea DuVall (The Faculty), Tate Donovan (Love Potion Number 9), and was later able to pick out Christopher Denham (Shutter Island, Sound of My Voice) although I initially mistook him for someone in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. My mistake.

 Well folks, if there's a lesson to be learned other than "never listen to sports radio," it's probably that even if we all assumed that Ben Affleck was the problem (and not Michael Bay or Kevin Smith), and even if he maybe was for a while there (*coughBennifercough*), it is possible to break free of your negative stigma and to be successful doing what you really want to do. And if you're successful at that, you end up in a Terrence Malick film that people are already raving about. And not be the guy who made Red State or Transformers 3.

 Non-Directly-Affleck related post-script: Even though this experience has taught me to be less cautious at the mere presence of a name associated with dumb tabloid stories or crappy movies, I continue to be hesitant every single time I see a trailer for a Tom Cruise movie, even when I really enjoy it (Mission: Impossible: III / Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol). Jack Reacher, not even the Affleck Theory is changing my mind about you...

 Non-Directly-Affleck related post-post-script: At some point, I should also explain how this theory applies to Brad Pitt, who is continually viewed through the "hunky leading man" image cultivated during Legends of the Fall even though he frequently chooses to work with fascinating writers, directors, and in films you wouldn't expect "that" Brad Pitt to be in. Maybe when I see Killing Them Softly...

 * He also mentioned 200 Cigarettes, although I strongly suspect he never saw the movie because that's not exactly a Ben Affleck vehicle...
** Because, y'know, nobody ever heard of that Robert Downey Jr. guy again after he relapsed during Ally McBeal.
*** Seriously. He went temporarily insane and put a 12 pack container on his head, declaring himself the Sprite Pope. He then marched around my room issuing decrees, because Gigli snapped his brain.
**** For the record, I'd like to say I really enjoyed him in Hollywoodland, Smokin' Aces, and Extract, all of which happened between Surviving Christmas and Argo.

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