Howard Hawks, perhaps the most reliable director of filmed entertainment in American history, once said his goal was to make every movie have “three great scenes and no bad ones.” I swear that most of the crap from this summer didn’t have one good scene, much less three, and were filled with bad ones, thanks to a crappy script, directing, or acting.
Hawks’ pictures are masterpieces, but they hardly call attention to themselves, and maybe because he has so damn many great films that his work doesn’t make it on canonical games like Sight & Sound’s Top 50 Films of All Time poll. But check out his oeuvre: The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, Rio Bravo, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings, Ball of Fire and, well, you get the point.
The point is this: there’s a few of directors out there today who try and emulate the Kubricks, Ozus, and Altmans of the world, and that’s fine (that’s more than fine, it’s awesome) but I wish, sometimes, that more of them would emulate Howard Hawks, if only to make a solid, entertaining picture. Three great scenes and no bad ones. How hard is that?
Well, Ben Affleck appears to have a well-worn copy of the Hawks playbook by this side, as his newest directoral effort, Argo, is the most thoroughly entertaining movie I’ve seen this year, a solid picture that, while no masterpiece, tells a damn good tale. And the older I get, the more I appreciate damn good tale.
The story is pretty incredible. We all know about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when protestors stormed the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, holding at gunpoint the entire staff for over a year. If you lived at that time, you may remember the grinding weariness of seeing the news, day after day, the poor hostages with their eyes covered by a ripped cloth, trotted out for the world to see next to an angry man with a gun, the yellow ribbons on the trees, the repurposing of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” into “Bomb Iran”, the wondering how this will end, if it will end.
But what we may not have known is that six members of the embassy escaped, working at the time in the passport office, with an easy exit onto the streets. THey found refuge at the Canadian embassy. Problem was, these escapees were almost more in danger than their counterparts held hostage. By escaping, they were thumbing their noses at Iran, and if captured, were probably going to meet certain, and certainly painful, death.
Enter the CIA. Supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), an expert at “exfiltrating” (getting sensitive subjects out of tough situations), try and hatch a plan to get those six out of the toughest country on earth from which Americans could escape. The State Department’s staff is full of thoroughly stupid ideas, including one lamebrained idea that involves issuing six bicycles to our subjects so they can make a 300 mile trek over mountains.
But the “best bad idea” comes from Mendez: he’ll fly to Iran, pretending to be a Canadian movie producer of a Star Wars knock off called Argo, a space epic that needs ‘exotic locales’ like Tehran, with its deserts and minarets, and leave with his ‘crew’–the six embassy workers–in tow. “It’s the best bad idea we have,” O’Donnell admits to the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton) and his assistant, played by Philip Baker Hall.
So the chase is on. But first to Hollywood! To make this thing plausible, there needs to be some gravitas to this fake movie. Mendez has a pal in Hollywood, Oscar-winning make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman), most famous his work on Planet of the Apes. Chambers takes his friend to meet producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a composite of every crazy producer who’s ever walked this earth. They create a fake company, find a good, weird script, have a press event to get the thing in Variety, make storyboards, the works. Once Argo looks like a real production, Mendez leaves the sunny funny farm of Los Angeles for the near-frozen revolutionary crucible that is Tehran.
Argo is not a complex film, but this lack of complexity actually works beautifully. This is a patriotic, fun movie that, like many of Hawks’ pictures, is about men (and some women) faced with a dilemma, disagreeing but ultimately respecting one another, and then working their tails off to get the job done. I’m happy to see a lack of scene-chewing bad guys (even the Iranians are given a lot of respect, and their motives are crystal clear, the script allowing for the Shah’s years of abuse to be a focal point.) Argo moves from point A to point B with no fooling around, much like the CIA operation itself. That works perfectly.
Argo captures three very disparate worlds, and it does each one well. From Washington to Hollywood to Tehran, director Affleck fills each location with tons of rich detail, but never lingering over each to drive home that you’re in the 1970s. The clothing, the music, the cars, even the politics are kept at arm’s length but help give Argo its credibility.
Affleck moves his plot along at a steady place, allowing you to settle into each and every location, and it’s surprising that his risky choice to have himself play the lead is effective–his Tony Mendez is confident, and exactly the guy you want to follow for a whole movie. He’s got a simple backstory–separated, misses his son–that is never dwelled on. His quiet confidence is the perfect fit for an actor of Affleck’s limitations–and it’s a strength for an actor to realize that in himself. Mendez is never more than a solid, intelligent man, not some hunk (though he’s dressed like a 70s swinger), nor some Bond-like hero.
Affleck is well-cast, but, again like Hawks, like a well-composed baseball team with a deep bench, his supporting cast is, well, fucking brilliant. Every actor and actress stands out, but doesn’t overplay their hand, from Arkins’ producer to Cranston’s CIA supervisor to the Canadian ambassador played by Victor Garber to Omid Abtahi the Iranian cultural liaison who escorts the “crew” around the central bazar. With this solid crew, every scene in Argo is so well executed you start to relax into the story, confident you won’t be let down. The script gives them some great dialogue, at times funny, at times nerve-wracking, without seeming overwrought.
While a great, visionary director might have made Argo an homage to the paranoia of the 1970s, contrasting D.C. with Hollywood with Iran (which admittedly would have been great), Argo is, simply put, not that movie, and Affleck is not capable of making that movie. This is not a multi-layered film, but a story about heroes, while at the same time not bludgeoning us with the flag, not spelling out this desire to celebrate these people and their actions. Affleck, unbelievably, never overplays his hand.
Until the unfortunate ending. Argo is the story of the removal of these six people from a terrible situation, and even those unfamiliar with anything but the basics of history knows these six weren’t captured and executed. Like All the President’s Men, Affleck manages to keep us on the edge of our seats despite knowing the rough outcome. But when his nervous, unprepared crew makes it to the airport, Argo almost becomes a joke, as nearly every Hollywood cliche from every cliffhanger makes its cameo appearance. A last minute cancellation of the operation? Check. A phone call at the eleventh hour? Check? Critical people who are detained from getting to the room to answer that critical call? Check. A guy racing across an airport to deliver a key message (that he could’ve called or paged)? Check. A phalanx of jeeps and cop cars chasing a moving airplane down the tarmac? Sigh. Check.
And where Argo should have ended with its bizarre nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, instead it goes deep into backstory we didn’t need, and a string of scenes that seem to suggest that Affleck thinks you didn’t get his point. His Mendez comes back to his wife, hugging her while the flag whips in the background (awful), falls asleep with his son in his lap (please…), and then we see the Canadian ambassador receiving a plaque, shots of the real people, and even, for God’s sake, a voice over with Jimmy Carter recounting the heroic deeds.
Still, that makes up maybe ten minutes of a really straightforward, totally entertaining movie about interesting people and a wild event with a crazy twist. A good script, good actors, and a director who doesn’t want to get in the way. Three good scenes and no bad ones–would that most of our movies follow this simple, straightforward recipe. We’d all have a much better time at the cinemas.