Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argo - Good Entertainment, But Only Better than Average Hollywood Film

I took this picture as I went into the Century theater.  After watching the window smashing in the movie Argo, it seemed to gain some relevance. 

As I walked out of the movie I was thinking I wouldn't even post about it.  What exactly did I think/feel?  I enjoyed it until the end when it seemed to me that way too many liberties were taken with the story to make it more exciting - would they or wouldn't they get out of Iran?  Close calls that I found laughably implausible.

And then among the credits were words to the effect of "Some parts fictionalized for dramatic effect."

Spoiler Alert:  This is probably a good time to stop reading if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to know too much before you go.  I'm not going to tell the story, but point out why this isn't a great movie.  In the process I'll have to talk about some scenes in detail.  By the way, I have no idea why this was rated R.  I certainly don't recall any sex scenes.  There was violence and some dead bodies, but nothing that kids don't see in the media every day.  Could it have been for the few outbursts of profanity?  [After I wrote the last few sentences I remembered that everything can be found on google and checked - you can read the reasons here.  I would just say all the issues listed were completely in context and not gratuitous.]

First.  I enjoyed the movie until the end when it got too Hollywood for me.  It offers easy history for those under 35 who weren't old enough to be aware of the events at the time.  An example of how we've all been infected by election hype: I did wonder whether the movie would be good for Obama or Romney.  The depressing answer - each side could spin it their way if they wanted.

So, what was wrong?

1.  At the end, we had a series of events within a 24 hour period, which all compounded to create a second series of extremely close calls that served to make the escape ever so much more dramatic than it really was.  (Listen to  David Edelstein's review "Too good to be true because it isn't" on Fresh Air which I heard when I got home and confirmed my reaction at the end of the movie.)
  • a.  The Iranians put hundreds of little kids to work piecing together the shredded Embassy documents, including profiles of everyone working in the embassy.  Nice detail, I'm sure it happened. But it's only on the day of the escape they put together the face of one of the six at the Canadian ambassador's house who is about to leave the country with Canadian passports under the ruse they are a film crew.
  • b.  The film crew is escorted through the bazaar in Tehran to scout it for the movie the day before the departure.  Each of them is surreptitiously photographed.  OK so far.  But somehow the recovered shredded picture is matched to the photo and the information gets sent to the officials checking passengers at the airport.  Remarkable efficiency and coordination.
  • c.  The night before the scheduled departure, Washington DC calls Iran to cancel the project.  The CIA officer leaves the six thinking he's going to pick them up in the morning.  Overnight he decides to defy his orders and do it.  He calls his DC boss on the Canadian ambassador's safe phone, just before the Canadians smash it and the ambassador flees.  He talks just long enough to say he's doing the job and hangs up.
  • d.  The DC guy he talked to realizes that the Swiss Air tickets had been cancelled and goes through a series of actions to get the White House to reauthorize the project and the tickets. 
  • e.  The fake production office in Burbank is notified to shut down because the project is off.  The two Hollywood guys then get notified (this wasn't completely clear) that the project is back on, but get blocked from the office because a film is being shot between them and the office as the airport security is calling them to check if the film is real.  No one answers.  They finally walk through the shoot as the Iranian security guy tries one more time and they answer it on the 14th or 15th ring, just as he is about to hang up.  They satisfy the guard who now allows the  group to proceed to the plane.  Fortunately in the movies time zones don't matter, and it's the middle of the day in Tehran and in Burbank even though in real life when it's 8:30am in Tehran, it's 10 pm in Burbank. 
  • f.  At the ticket counter the airline person finds no reservations on the computer for the group.  Flash to DC and the guy calling to reauthorize the tickets.  Flash to Tehran airport as the CIA guy asks the person to check again.  In less than half a minute, they reappear.  Alaska Airlines ticketing was down all morning last week, but in 1979, between DC, Switzerland, and Tehran, they got the tickets back online in 30 seconds.

You get the picture.  So do the Iranians - they reconstructed the shredded one and match it to the photo - and call the right people at the airport just as the group boards the bus to the waiting plane.  The guards come running after them.  The glass sliding door is locked.  They smash it with their guns.  (Cue the photo above .) And suddenly half a dozen vehicles and soldiers (how did they find all of them in those seconds?) are chasing down the runway in an attempt to stop the plane which is starting to taxi.  The CIA guy sees them out the window overtaking the plane as the pilot pulls the lever and the plane speeds down the runway and into the air.

It was just too much and too unbelievable for me.

There were lots of good parts.  The storming of the embassy seemed plausible and gave me a sense of the impending mob and the helplessness of those inside.

Starting the film with the 1953 CIA coup  that overthrew Iran's first democratically elected president and the installing of the shah gave the film a documentary feel with an un-Hollywood spin that gave serious historical context to the film.  But we forget the history lesson of Iran's hijacked budding democracy by the end of the movie and the Hollywood ending when we're rooting for the escape and the Iranians are the villains.  The ride to the bazaar with the car being jostled by the mob also gave a realistic sense of being out of control and trapped. It reminded me of scenes in The Year of Living Dangerously.  Did they actually get caught in a protest mob?  I'm guessing not.  They probably didn't go to the bazaar for a scouting trip even.  But these were at least plausible.  And I realize that in a two hour film you have to crunch a lot of events.

The two Hollywood characters - Alan Arkin and John Goodman - have great parts and do a wonderful job of taking jabs at the Hollywood culture.  Now that's something the screenwriter probably knows something about.

Edelman (the reviewer mentioned above) liked the scene where the CIA guy preps the six group members on their identities.  I thought they didn't stand a chance if there was anything more than a superficial interrogation at the airport.  But I must admit, I thought  the Farsi speaking group member's discussion of the film with the guards at the airport was cool.  They may be scary guards, but they are human beings who are impressed, like most of us are, by Hollywood.  His use of the story boards and his sound affects of alien craft was convincing.  But if I were the guard I would wonder why he spoke such good Farsi after a two day visit.  I think he was even asked about that and he said something about preparing for his trip.  But you don't get that good at a language in such a short time.  Plus - a realistic part - the guard actually did speak English, though he only spoke to them in Farsi at first.  Was he trying to cause them to think he didn't speak English and wouldn't understand them if they talked to each other?  So this good scene still had this Farsi flaw (at least for me.)

But what keeps this film, for me, from breaking out of the "run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie" bin is the shallowness of the characters portrayed.

Antonio Mendez - the CIA hero.  We know nothing about him.  That's what a CIA spy wants you to know, but it's not good for the hero of a film.  We know from phone calls to his son and a discussion with the Alan Arkin character about Arkin's character's estrangement with his family, that Mendez is a caring father.  We know nothing about why he's separated from his wife.  Or why she walks out onto the porch at the end of the movie and hugs him and  all is magically better.  What makes this man capable of risking his life and the lives of others to get American citizens out of perilous spots?  (He tells the six that he's done this before and never lost anyone.)  And how can someone savvy enough to bluff his way through post-Shah Iran be so amazed at the Hollywood producer's (Arkin again) negotiations for the rights to the film script?  What makes him so sure of himself?  What made him good enough to succeed?  We know nothing.  I was intrigued (in a creepy way) by the idea of a man leaving on a business trip for a few days to save six Americans in Iran, who comes back and can't explain to his estranged wife where he was and what he did.  Again, there's a hint here when he's told he's getting an award, but the award is top secret. 

The six Americans in the Canadian embassy.  We learn only the most elementary info about them.  We don't get under their skin at all.  Again, you can argue this was only a two hour movie.  Other movies seem to figure out how to do this.   The King's Speech was 118 minutes and we did get to know all those characters and what made them tick.  Other recent movies that gave us a lot more character depth - Milk, Capote, Broke Back Mountain, The Pianist, even Traffic.  The Iranian movie, A Separation, did a great job of getting us inside of the characters, even with subtitles.

I understand this film had a story to tell in addition to developing the characters, and the movie makers did attempt to reveal bits of the characters as part of the plot. The husband's  confession near the end that his wife had wanted to leave Iran six months earlier and he'd kept her there was probably the most revealing insight.  But for me, the characters were just that - characters in an adventure flick, just part of the plot.  Finding ways to reveal the characters as the plot unwinds is one of the ways great films distinguish themselves from good films.   For me good characters and a plausible (not merely possible) plot are essential. This was supposed to be a portrayal of a real event, not a fictional adventure movie. 

Again, I'd remind you that I did like it.  I think maybe I'm reacting to what I sense is a strong positive reaction to the film.  From Wikipedia:
Argo was acclaimed by critics.[7] Rotten Tomatoes reported that 94% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 140 reviews, with an average score of 8.5 out of 10. Its consensus reads: "Tense, exciting and often darkly comic, Argo recreates a historical event with vivid attention to detail and finely wrought characters."[8]
I'm sorry,  but anyone who thinks these were 'finely wrought characters' was either in a rush to get their review out or they're not watching enough of those good television series that do have some great characters. Or maybe it's a commentary on the rest of this year's films.

I know the Toronto Film Festival is a biggie, but this film won there, in part, because Canada comes out of the movie as one of the big heroes, and even laid back Canadians like films that make them look good. 

Oh, the other thing that caused me to think about reviewing the movie was a google searcher Friday night who got to the blog looking for Iran Hostage Rescue Attempt.  They got to this photo from a trip to the Arlington National Cemetery a couple of years ago.

This was the rescue mission that ended badly. 


  1. Just saw it yesterday. I had a special interest because we lived there when I was a kid and evacuated just as was everything falling apart. I completely agree—it had really nice exposition, but the requirement to be a Hollywood blockbuster with it's predetermined dramatic arch messed it up a bit. Have you read the original Wired article that the screen play is based on? It's a good story without all the artificial drama:

  2. Mark, thanks for the link. And I learn an interesting part of your history too. I'd love to hear more about your experiences as a kid in Iran and what it was like to have to flee.
    And I'd love to see what you and your camera could do in Iran today.


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