“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world,” Jean-Luc Godard once famously said. Because cinema doesn’t merely espouses the absurd but also revels in it, and within its demented frame, it makes everything possible, and even if it cannot, at the very least it will make you believe it is possible. And therefore, few things can be as good an excuse as cinema, because that’s how amorphous it is. Also universal – which is why excuses involving cinema can not only span cities, states, but also countries and continents.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) would have completely concurred with that quote of Godard’s. He’s a CIA officer who is in charge of getting six Americans back from Iran. The country has been embroiled in a revolution, and those six Americans’ lives are in danger, especially because they absconded from the U.S. embassy. They are currently staying put at a Canadian ambassador’s house. The CIA officials exhaust all possible options cogitating how they could fly out those six Americans from Iran – should they send their team masquerading as teachers, charity volunteers, what? Tony Mendez has got a different plan. He’s going to make a movie in Iran. A fake movie, of course. His peers think the idea is as preposterous as any idea could be. And given the movie is based on true events, I can only agree. Cinema, no matter how charming and make-believe, can seldom rival real life in idiosyncrasy.
Argo is Ben Affleck’s third outing as a director. His first two movies, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town were both well acclaimed critically, but I personally felt they had a certain remote, frigid quality to them. For me then, Ben Affleck’s filmography was reminiscent of a callow, vacuous college freshman trying hard to fit in. But with Argo, Ben Affleck doesn’t merely fit in, he comes of age. For to make a movie like Argo, and to get it right with such equipoise is not easy. Because the movie’s primary obstacles are borne out of its own nature. Firstly, it’s a narrative that’s sprawling – snaking from the CIA offices in the U.S., to dingy bylanes in Iran, and then back to the White office. And since the movie’s a thriller, the audience expects and demands one thing from the film-maker unreservedly – focus. It’s not difficult to see how the movie’s means and its intended outcomes are at odds to even begin with. Which is why it’s remarkable that Affleck gets both things right with aplomb.
Affleck quite deftly maintains and escalates tension in the movie. The idea itself is nothing ground shattering, it’s a trick used by many film-makers in movies belonging to this genre – creating a major scene through juxtaposition of three, four different scenes, and then rapidly cutting from one scene to another. But it’s not easy to get such scenes right, as one wrong scene can upset the ensemble. But Affleck adroitly juggles tension from streets of Iran to hostages’ hideout to CIA’s headquarter. And Ben Affleck is not in good form merely as a director, but also as an actor. His sedate, subdued portrayal of an emotionally fractured CIA agent keeps the tension afloat and consistent.
It’s also interesting to see how the movie has been structured; it has distinct flavor at different points – a heist movie, a racy chase, poignant drama, myriad instances of nail-biting what-if? What’s also alive throughout the movie is Affleck’s propensity to think as a director. There’s this one scene in the movie’s climax where the aforementioned group of Americans are grilled at the airport by security officials. The security official doesn’t seem to understand English and is hence talking in Persian. The Americans are befuddled as they want to know what the officer is saying, and so do we. Affleck very astutely doesn’t tell us anything about the conversation via subtitles. We are as clueless and frustrated as those Americans. And this stylistic diversion is noteworthy because we understand all the conversations in languages other than English through subtitles prior to this scene.
It’s also heartening to see the manner in which Affleck wraps up the movie. Which is a testimony to his cinematic ambition for this movie. I think mediocre movies believe in stories, great movies believe in characters. And that’s why the movie doesn’t fold up immediately, even when the mission is concluded. Because Affleck knows the mechanization of mission pales in comparison to the pathos of these characters. More importantly, because they are based on real people.
Argo comes out at a time when we are too prone to seeing promising movies fritter it all away. And this movie risked a similar danger too. But Argo is one of those rare movies – the ones that don’t get burdened with expectations, rather shoulder it responsibly, and finally gives us an experience that’s worth savoring. After few tentative pokes, Ben Affleck has finally hit this one out of the park. He can reserve his energy for running some other time.