October 24, 2012

"Argo"

Ben Affleck has made himself into a brand name over the last half decade for directing well-made suspense movies for intelligent grown-ups: Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo. They're not quite Drop Everything and Hire a Sitter movies, but more like When You Get a Chance, You and Your Spouse Will Enjoy This Movie movies. Thus, Argo didn't have a huge opening weekend, but it had an excellent second weekend, down only 15%, indicating fine word of mouth.

Argo is based on the once well-known 1980 "Canadian Caper" in which Canadian diplomats in Iran sheltered and help to extricate six American diplomats who had avoided being rounded up with the rest of the embassy hostages. The CIA side of the extrication was kept secret until 1997, and the movie focuses on the American machinations, somewhat unfairly to the Canadians.

And, most of the last half hour of exciting plot twists didn't actually occur, but they were all plausible enough that they well could have happened.

Also, unsurprisingly, Affleck strives to make the Democratic Administration of the time look as good as possible.

It's interesting to speculate how good Affleck-directed movies would be if he didn't make movies in order to cast himself or his brother Casey as the lead. For example, Affleck has himself play Tony Mendez, who was a CIA expert on disguises and forgery. Mendez called up an old friend, the Hollywood makeup artist who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and they cooked up a fake sci-fi movie production to get Mendez into Iran as a Canadian movie producer scouting for exotic locations. 

Mendez entitled his memoirs Master of Disguise. Affleck is, by the standards of well-known actors, not very good at blending in. He's tall and he had a lot of work done to look like a TV movie of the week version of a Hollywood leading man the way Mitt Romney looks like somebody you'd cast to play the Republican candidate in a movie about the Secret Service trying to stop terrorists from blowing up a Presidential debate.

So, in Argo, Affleck dyes his hair black and grows a huge beard to cover most of his square-jawed, symmetrical face.

Apparently, the real Mendez has outstanding conman skills (he's an expert forger as well as make-up artist), which ought to make him an interesting character. But Affleck's chief trait as an actor is earnestness, so nothing much gets developed along those lines.

One amusing bit of history that was distorted in order to build tension was the secret six's reaction to Mendez arriving with elaborate cover stories about how each was a movie person scouting locations. In Argo, Affleck has to win them over to trust his crazy scheme enough to risk their lives on it. Tense arguments ensue. 

In reality, the six thought it was the most fun idea they'd ever heard. Without prompting from Mendez, they immediately started scrounging up more fashionable clothes and blowdrying their hair to look more Hollywood. When he returned the next day, they excitedly showed off their new looks.

A lot of crime and suspense movies these days are elaborate metaphors for movie-making: e.g., Inception, or The Town's ultra-competent bankrobbers are really a movie technical crew. (Real criminals tend to be screw-ups.) The Canadian Caper was an instance of this movie trope slopping over into real life, and, if anything, Argo underplays this.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

In fairness to Affleck we don't know why he was cast. It may have a been condition from the studio that they hire him to play the lead. The square jawed handsome guys with a name tend to get the leads in Hollywood.

I haven't seen Argo so I can't comment on the performance but I'm not sure I agree he plays earnest the best. I liked him as the shifty neighborhood friend in Good Will Hunting--"Retainer".

Dain said...

Ha, it's "Gone Baby Gone" actually.


pat said...

Just about the worst look alike since George Clooney (world's most handsome man) played Fred Friendly (world's most homely man).

Mendez should have been played by by someone like the late Donald Pleasance.

This raises again the question - just how hard is it to direct a movie? The hard parts seems to be raising the money or getting a good script. There are tons of good actors available. Set decoration and special effects have reached a level nearing perfection. In most films today there is no longer a single producer. There seem to be dozens of producers in narrow specialities.

In most professions about ten percent of all practitioners foul up through incompetence. But in the movies there seldom seems to be a truly bad director.

Charles Laughton directed one film and it was a masterpiece. Brando directed only one film and it too was a masterpiece. Seems improbable, no?

Albertosaurus


omar said...

Completely OT, but I will ask anyway because I guessing someone here will know:
does anyone know of any good accounts of life aboard Chinese or Arab trading ships pre 16th century or so? I ask because I have read a number of books and seen movies and so on about life on European sailing ships in the “age of exploration” and it was a hellishly tough life..the achievements of European sea-farers are amazing feats of human endurance and skill (Polynesians were responsible for some amazing feats too, sometimes given extra-credit for being “primitive”, but even their amazing voyages dont compare to the feats of European sailors). Arabs and Chinese were long distance sailors too, and on fairly large ships (in the case of Chinese junks of the Admiral He period, much bigger than European ships). We dont hear much about life on those ships.

Was it equally tough? or was sailing the Indian ocean and the seas around China in dhows and junks somehow an easier job than the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific feats of European explorers (including the above-mentioned Captain Cook)? Of course, we know that lots of Asians were pressganged into service on European ships and did all that European sailors did (though evidently their captains and leaders did not do what European captains and leaders did, for whatever reason), so its not a question about the physical (and mental) skills needed to do job X on ship. Job X was done by all sorts of races. I am just curious about the details of job Y. what was life like on junks and dhows.
I am interested in details.

Harry Baldwin said...

I thought this was a very good thriller, maintaining tension throughout. Affleck may be a big Obama supporter, as is the movie's producer, George Clooney, but "Argo" does not come at an opportune time for the president. The situation brings the fiasco in Benghazi to life, with the tension in the embassy as the staff realizes it is under attack, the scenes of the fanatical Muslims rushing in and overwhelming the guards, and the subsequent humiliation of the US. At the end, if you wait through the credits, you'll hear voice-over of Jimmy Carter bleating about how proud he was that this crisis was resolved without loss of life, or some such nonsense.

Steve Sailer said...

From WWTDD:

"Being a director is like being a coach in the NBA. “Ohh, hey, Lebron, um, go jump higher than those other guys. Ok, good, now, dunk the ball. Oh yea, he did it, my plan is working!”"

http://www.wwtdd.com/2012/09/james-francos-nyu-professor-suing-him-for-defamation/

Steve Sailer said...

"does anyone know of any good accounts of life aboard Chinese or Arab trading ships pre 16th century or so?"

The recent book "1493" describes life onboard the Chinese ships that traded with Manila in the 16th Century.

Auntie Analogue said...


Ben Affleck can act? In every flick I've seen him in he comes across like a two-by-four. Oh, well, you know what's said about opinions!

Steve Sailer said...

Regarding leading men who become successful movie directors: a lot of it is being able to act like the alpha male: your assistant director wants to do X and your cameraman wants to do Y, so you pick one or the other or make up a Z, but you do it quickly and confidently and get everybody on the set to assume you know what you are doing. There is so much talent available to make movies these days that as long as they feel like they are being led, they'll get a decent job done. Eastwood, Gibson, Redford, Affleck, Clooney, Costner, they are all good at acting like they know what they are doing.

What's striking is how few aging female stars transition into directing, especially because they start hitting the wall age-wise about a decade earlier so it makes sense for them to start thinking about directing when they are still vigorous. Ida Lupino and Leni Reifenstahl did a long time ago. Jody Foster has directed two or three small projects, but not too many others. Penny Marshall was a character actress with success directing ("Big").

Perhaps leading ladies tend to be selected for their emotional fragility, their ability to project emotions onto the screen, which often means they are feeling them even more than they look, while leading men tend to be selected for projecting more in-control images.

Ray Sawhill said...

Great review.

As for directing ... and not that I have any experience worth speaking of ... But in the case of Laughton, Brando and Affleck, it can't have hurt that they all came to directing having had years of experience in the entertainment business. At least they knew what the job entailed.

Harry Baldwin said...

This raises again the question - just how hard is it to direct a movie?

I used to work in advertising and did dozens of TV commercials. The directors we worked with all struck me as extremely intelligent, competent people. They had a sense of how they wanted the end product to come together, and what they had to do to get there. Most of them aspired to direct films. Kinka Usher, one of the top-ranked TV commercial directors, got his shot at a motion picture and gave us the mediocre "Mystery Men," so I can't believe it's that simple.

Is the implication that if you're a movie star and you want to direct that you can get all the other people to do the actual thinking for you? Affleck's movies have been really good and I can't help but give him credit for that. There sure are a lot of crappy, half-baked films out there.

Peter said...

@omar:
From what I recall from my readings of maritime history, the Arab and Chinese trading ships generally stayed close to land on their voyages, not doing nearly as much trans-oceanic travel as the Europeans. That made it easier for them to stop for supplies and seek shelter from bad weather. As a result, a sailor's life probably wasn't quite as tough as on European oceangoing ships.

Peter said...

@omar:
From what I recall from my readings of maritime history, the Arab and Chinese trading ships generally stayed close to land on their voyages, not doing nearly as much trans-oceanic travel as the Europeans. That made it easier for them to stop for supplies and seek shelter from bad weather. As a result, a sailor's life probably wasn't quite as tough as on European oceangoing ships.

Anonymous said...

Screenwriter here.

The main thing about being a successful director is to get a good script, hire an excellent DP and competent actors, and stay the hell out of their way.

For most directors, this is much much harder than it sounds.

mel belli said...

Jimmy Carter bleating about how proud he was that this crisis was resolved without loss of life, or some such nonsense.

I was a first year law student at the time, and I recall that one of my professors, a giant in the field of creditors' remedies, was brought in by the State Department to design a seizure of Iranian assets. Did that turn out to be the key factor? I'm too lazy to research it.

green mamba said...

Sounds like a thoroughly uninteresting movie. Even the title bores me.

Regarding female directors: Sarah Polley started directing while she was still young and attractive (still is, I think), and she's fairly accomplished. Her latest, "Take This Waltz", with Michelle Williams essentially reprising her "Blue Valentine" role, should provide much material for the Roissy-ites (it also features a naked Sarah Silverman in one of the most - intentionally - unerotic shower scenes ever).

Anonymous said...

voice-over of Jimmy Carter bleating about how proud he was that this crisis was resolved without loss of life, or some such nonsense.

I think he forgot the dead people in Operation Eagle Claw.

Harry Baldwin said...

green mamba said... Sounds like a thoroughly uninteresting movie. Even the title bores me.

Between the people who've seen it and like it and the person who hasn't seen it and doesn't like it, readers will have to decide whose opinion to go with.

it also features a naked Sarah Silverman in one of the most - intentionally - unerotic shower scenes ever).

Excuse me, seeing Sarah Silverman and Michelle Williams naked is erotic whatever else is going on in the scene.

BrokenSymmetry said...

" The CIA side of the extrication was kept secret until 1997, and the movie focuses on the American machinations, somewhat unfairly to the Canadians"

As in "Black Hawk Down" where the contribution of
Pakistani and Malaysian forces (one Malaysian was killed) was minimized.

Disclaimer: I'm Malaysian

Peter said...

Her latest, "Take This Waltz", with Michelle Williams essentially reprising her "Blue Valentine" role, should provide much material for the Roissy-ites (it also features a naked Sarah Silverman in one of the most - intentionally - unerotic shower scenes ever).

Of course I had to find the scene online. Daily Motion has it, in all its full uncensored glory. It's quite erotic indeed. Sarah Silverman and Michelle Williams look terrific, as does the third shower-er, Jennifer Podemski (who is mixed Ojibway Indian and Israeli). Yes, there's an older woman and a fat woman in the background, but you won't drop dead or anything from seeing them.

Anonymous said...

Didnt some other Americans (not diplomatic staff) escape Iran by posing as Poles (aided and abetted by the Poles of course). Or maybe it was Brits escaping?

Anonymous said...

There are clearly factors in movie production that neither we or the people making movies know or comprehend before the project is completed - maybe its just luck? If it were as easy as it seems to be there would a lot fewer really bad movies.

Mr. Anon said...

"BrokenSymmetry said...

As in "Black Hawk Down" where the contribution of Pakistani and Malaysian forces (one Malaysian was killed) was minimized.

Disclaimer: I'm Malaysian"

Don't feel too bad. In "U-571", they had the Americans engaging in lots of derring-do in order to get hold of an enigma-machine from a german U-Boat, whereas in reality that was an entirely British caper.

"Black Hawk Down" also left out the reasons why the Somali militias hated us so much. Still in all, it was a pretty good movie.

beowulf said...

"The recent book "1493" describes life onboard the Chinese ships that traded with Manila in the 16th Century."

The hard part wasn't life on board, it was life BEFORE going to sea.

The ships, huge junks nearly five hundred feet long and built from the finest teak, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals."
http://timelineindex.com/content/view/2654

Seeing as Chinese DNA has been found in Greenland and the Azores (among other ports of calls), apparently the men below deck were, shall we say, all man below deck.


Whiskey said...

Directing is harder than it looks. You need to get emotionally correct performances from actors out of sequence. You'll deal with some actors with high skill levels, others very little, and have to mesh them. Some actors will mentor, and others will not. There's the invariable hookups among cast mates who are relatively young and attractive, bored, and isolated for a month or two on the set. Then there's the technical aspects.

A lot of shoots require digital effects/green screens and extensive storyboarding. A director has to know what finished shot he wants and how the shoot will come together, he can't just roll the ball out like the NBA. Something like the Avengers, or even Dredd, will require lots of digital effects mixed in with live action. All of which look like crap during the actual filming.

Then there's project management. Guys like Eastwood and Allen are great managers, they stay on budget and on time because their shoots are well planned, little action/stunts, and they select actors known for their ability to be prepared and have several emotional variants ready for each scene. Reshoots and retakes are seldom, people go home at the end of the day (no costly overtime for crews).

Whiskey said...

The best measure of how good or bad a director is, really, is how successful the films he makes on average are, in critical reception, audience reaction, and box office response.

Peter Jackson, Peter Weir, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are good examples. Their films have a consistent visual look, common story and visual elements, and are pretty obvious who directed them. You won't confuse an over the top film by Bay with say, Scorsese's New York grittiness. Bay is fairly well known as a big budget hackery guy; loud and obnoxious. Spielberg was a fairly middle class suburban sentimentalist, now fairly elite sentimentalist (and still of course, sentimental). Mann is a master of tales of macho hard-assery. Peter Weir is deeply attracted to mystical weirdness which shows up far weirder than any maundering stuff by the Wachowski "siblings." Jackson loves and is good at Tolkein epics.

If directors don't matter, imagine Michael Bay directing Lord of the Rings. Complete with take-away 80's signature lines by say, Aragorn played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now imagine Taxi Driver directed by Steven Spielberg, as an ultimately uplifting tale of Iris's return to suburbia helped by wacky Travis Bickle, played by Michael J. Fox. Think of "Heat" directed by Peter Weir, with leads Peter Weller and Harrison Ford over-run by symbolic floods and rains of frogs. Think of "ET" directed by Martin Scorsese, complete with a bloody showdown between the Alien and the tough FBI agent played by Robert DeNiro.

Directors matter a lot. They're not gods, don't fix bad projects, and get more credit than they should, but they do matter. Michael Mann would have made a different Transformers movie than Michael Bay. It probably would have been unwatchable because it would have come down to some duel between two guys not giant robots bashing each other -- which is what the audience wanted.

Anonymous said...

"Seeing as Chinese DNA has been found in Greenland"

Not surprising. The Greenlanders (and other Inuit?) were famed/notorious for the availability of wives/daughters (I think with husband compliance). In the explorer Wally Herbert's autobiography he describes how the crew of his boat (he's buying huskies for an Antarctic trip) are 'much in demand as lovers along the coast' and laments that the racial makeup of the Greenlanders is changing as more of their children are sired by foreigners.

Lugash said...

I think he forgot the dead people in Operation Eagle Claw.

Operation Eagle Claw is getting stuffed down the memory hole. Argo seems tailor made to make people believe we can win another military misadventure in the Middle East.

pat said...

Or you could read "1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America". This is a great crank book. Vastly entertaining but completely wacko. It ranks up there with the works of Barry Fell.

Albertosaurus

Hunsdon said...

Whiskey said: . . . imagine Michael Bay directing Lord of the Rings. Complete with take-away 80's signature lines by say, Aragorn played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hunsdon said: It must be the End Times! Whiskey's comment reminded me of The Last Action Hero, which I thought interesting and underrated.

Particularly I was thinking of the trailer-within-the-movie for a Baysian (Bayesque?) Hamlet. "To be or not to be? Not to be."

pat said...

It kind of touching that Whiskey is so reverant about movie directors and directing. Let me suggest a few notions that might help ground this discussion.

I have been a director myself and I expect that many readers of this blog have also. I was for example the Director of Software Development at two different technical companies. I did all that managerial stuff that Whiskey mentions. If I had been a movie director I imagine I would have used most of the same skills. America must have at least a million guys who work every day as a director of something or other. Is directing a movie so much different?

BTW software development is also a creative endevour. As is building the custom hot rods that are so popular now in reality televison. I'm tempted to say that management is management and the difference in movies is just glamour and publicity.

For years I've been toying with the idea of directing operas. I have produced them but never actually directed. The main reason was that one of my best friends directs operas. I don't want to compete with him.

When he first began twenty years ago I could barely watch, he was so bad. He couldn't even set traffic patterns so that singers didn't bump into one another or stage scenes so as to account for the theater's sight lines. He was just incompetant. The singers laughed at him.

But then last fall I saw a Falstaff he had directed and it was brilliant. I was so happy. He had learned his craft.

I think it must be the same way in Hollywood. Almost anyone can direct if they practice enough but of course the stakes are too high to allow for long apprentistships.

In the course of a career Rotten Tomatoes tells us all movie people - actors, writers, and directors - get it right about two out of three tries. So success is for those who are lucky enough to by chance have their good work early and their shoddy work later after they are established. M. Night Shamalian is only known to you because his one or two good movies came early. Had his more recent films been first he never would have gotten another chance.

Albertosaurus

omar said...

Its my impression that Gavin Menzies book (1421) is mostly junk. But I have only scanned it in B and N, not really delved deeply into it...it just seems too far from recorded history for my taste, but thats just a personal shortcut (helps save time).
In any case, I was looking for accounts of shipboard life; in the way countless books record details of shipboard life on European sailing ships.
Of course, it may be that such accounts just don't exist. Things happen in history in whatever order they happen. They dont have to happen in every place in the same way (usually dont). It may be that this is a genre that just didnt get created in China or Arabia...but knowing that a lot of Chinese and Arab writing has not yet been explored by outsiders (and in the case of Arabs, was out of fashion in their own civilization for a while, maybe lost forever) its possible there are accounts out there and I have not yet heard of them.
Hence the question. Is there anything out there that you know of that a general reader in WI might read?

omar said...

@anonymous, can you give some more information about that Chinese DNA in Greenland?

Anonymous said...

".. Planet of the Apes..."

Insert comment regarding resemblance to ZIRA here

Anonymous said...

"Particularly I was thinking of the trailer-within-the-movie for a Baysian (Bayesque?) Hamlet. "To be or not to be? Not to be."" - "Who says I'm fair."

TGGP said...

Note that Whiskey didn't include James Cameron among that list of directors.

Anonymous said...

The intro completely killed this movie for me. We foolishly deposed the Communist that the people of Iran elected, who nationalized the oil industry to give their wealth back to the people from the (implied) evil British and American corporations. Then the Shah came in and lived in a Louis XIV lifestyle that by itself made the rest of the country completely impoverished. All this b.s. in the first two minutes, and the Carter worship is what was most offensive to you?


"And, most of the last half hour of exciting plot twists didn't actually occur, but they were all plausible enough that they well could have happened."

Really? Come on, Steve. The last half hour took me entirely out of the movie. The race to contact Jimmy Carter to have him personally approve the CIA buying 7 airline tickets? Seriously, anyone in the CIA got a credit card? If that really happened, we'd be screwed as a country, that is, moreso.

And the Iranian airport security call the fake studio to check on these people, from Iran, and are satisfied that some guy says the name they are looking for is out of the country. Right.

And then the police chase of the plane taking off? Come on, you get a call saying the Americans are escaping, and you're the Iranian security in charge of the airport, you try to chase a plane in police cars instead of grounding all the flights. Uh, what?

Everything that didn't happen in reality that was in the movie felt like it was written by an 8-year-old (or by Ben Affleck). No wonder every other person in the theater loved it.

Old Fogey said...

If you want to know what actually happened read Robert A. Wright's "Our Man in Tehran: The Truth Behind the Secret Mission to Save Six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Ambassador Who Worked with the CIA to Bring Them Home." The book is based in large part on Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's recollections of the affair.

Anonymous said...

Whiskey's comment reminded me of The Last Action Hero, which I thought interesting and underrated

Despite the horrified early reviews it actually turned out to be quite a funny flick when I saw it during theatrical, and it's worth catching on cable or Netflix on some hurricane-plagued evening. John McTiernan was a genius testosterone director who unfortunately got in with the Pellicano crowd at the close of the Clinton Administration; thus nowadays most studio movies have to be adaptations of effete graphic novels or twee children's shows... As that made-up Jack Warner producer in Argo said in a different context, This is what's left of America.

btw was thrilled to see the CGI-decrepit Hollywoodland sign but in the overseas trailers they use the present restored sign!--completely defeating the "dingy 70s" vibe. John Goodman's line about how every komiteh's got an aspiring-screenwriter cousin "selling rugs down on La Brea" was also choice