Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Lessons: Argo

Summary: A CIA exfiltration agent hatches a plot to sneak six Americans out of Iran: pretend they're Canadians making a film. 

Argo is a historical movie, which means that Ben Affleck has only so much wiggle room to play with: to give the idea that the six Americans have nowhere to turn to, he can have a character say that the British and New Zealanders turned the six away (which, since the Kiwis and Brits really did help, earned Affleck a censure from the New Zealand government!); but he can't make it two Americans instead of six or end with them being captured instead of escaping. So, unfortunately, we know how it will turn out, which drains some of the suspense; but then, we know how Romeo and Juliet is gonna turn out, too, and that doesn't spoil it for us.

But because there are so many characters here, so many moving parts, Affleck can't really spend too much time with any of them. There's the Americans hiding out, the Canadians doing the hiding, the Iranian maid who knows the secret; there's the State Department and the White House staff and the CIA; there's the Iranian police and the cultural bureau and the Iranians in the street; there's the Hollywood makers and the Hollywood press. So how does Affleck solve this issue and give us fully-rounded human beings?

Well, he doesn't. "Character" is done quickly and broadly: the producer is an irascible old man, with one-two lines about how he's a shitty dad and kids need mothers; the Iranian in charge of hunting down the Americans has no particular traits; even Mendez himself--the exfiltration agent and guy we spend most time watching--is pretty thin as "the agent who isn't afraid to say no to the bureaucracy," which is a fun character type--but not a fully rounded human being.

Now, Affleck (and the screenwriter, Chris Terrio) pull some good tricks to give us some glimpse of these people. For instance, in Mendez's briefing, the CIA gives us a quick run-down of the six, complete with some home movies; so we are told bluntly who is the social climber, who are the newlyweds, etc.

Then there are all the historical touches which give the film some verisimilitude: there are so many chunky glasses and mustaches that it's hard not to see these characters as characters--the man who chose that soup-strainer must've had a reason and a backstory.

But more than that, Argo gets away with having pretty thin characters because of the propulsive and multi-POVed plot--even though the plot is pretty linear. So: 
  1. Iranian revolution captures Americans, but six escape. 
  2. How will they get out? Mendez offers the movie option. 
  3. He goes to Hollywood to set it up. 
  4. He goes to Iran. 
  5. He faces some pushback from the six. 
  6. He faces pushback from the US government. 
  7. The Iranians nearly catch the, but they escape. 
  8. He reconciles with his wife.
Sure, it's linear and pretty simple, but the script keeps up the tension by jumping between different POVs, including the antagonists'; and by setting up the stakes and the urgency. So we know the embassy files were shredded, but we see kids in a sweatshop putting the shreds back together, including photos of the people who worked there. Can Mendez get the six out before the kids put together their pictures? Or will they end up like the dead bodies we see hanging from construction cranes? Can the six learn their covers? Will the reluctant one be convinced to go along with this plan? And so on. There's even a "will the producer in Hollywood get to the phone on time to answer the call from Iran?" Hokey, sure, but it works to keep attention and tension.

The only real misstep, I think, was in that we spent too much time with Mendez and learned too much about him. Sure, he gets the crazy movie idea from the movie he watches with his son over the phone, but his whole storyline doesn't really add much. Are we supposed to believe that, after reuniting these six with their families, Mendez had a revelation that family was important and that he should be with his own? Frankly, I think it would've worked better with a Continental Op-type agent, a guy who was pretty mysterious. As it is, it seems pretty pro forma for him to have a happy, family-oriented ending.

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