October 24, 2012
Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, watching “Argo” next to a visiting scholar from Norway, the thought occurred to me that this film is about as American as you can get. From the subject matter to the actors to the editing style, you would be hard pressed to see a more American recent film (though “Lincoln” will soon give it a run for the money). “Argo” concerns itself with the exfiltration of six Americans who escaped from the Iranian embassy at the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) goes to Iran to extract them using the ruse of being on a location scout for the Canadian sci-fi fantasy film “Argo”. In order to make the ruse pass Iranian scrutiny, Tony asks a Hollywood friend (Goodman) to help him. I don’t care to dwell on the plot anymore as you can read much more pithy summaries elsewhere; rather, I want to talk about the film’s editing, cinematography, and major shortcoming.
The editing is adroit, and makes the film goes down smoothly. It is well paced, and the cuts are as seamless as possible holding to Hollywood tradition. I had to keep reminding myself to cycle through my critical thinking questions because the film does such a nice job of sucking you. The only editing technique that stood out to me is the final chase montage. This montage harkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith who pioneered the chase sequence cutting technique. Shots of the quarry and the pursuer are intercut more and more rapidly to build tension, until it is resolved. It’s interesting how commonplace this ancient technique is, but it makes sense as it is so effective. And I guess that is what I am fumbling towards in this post. This film does nothing new, but what it chooses to do it does well. I’d be willing to watch it again to tease apart how it nicely interweaves the three plot lines of Tony, the six, and the home front.
While no technique used is novel, there are a couple that are worth mentioning. The first is the intercutting of documentary footage for the storming of the embassy. This is very powerful, and it’s place in the opening sequence makes you inclined to judge the rest of the movie as more true. A similar trick is done while the end credits role, where the actor is compared to file photos. By bookending the movie in this manner, you are more inclined to think that everything in between was also so true. The second is using exclusively medium shots to make you share the claustrophobia felt by the six in hiding. The whole time the six in the Canadian’s home, we rarely see a whole room. The continuity of space is totally destroyed, and so you are forced to make guesses about how large the home is. There’s the living room, and then twenty minutes later a dining table, and then a kitchen. It’s impossible to piece together, until Tony arrives. Then the shots start to take in the whole room, and we start to realize all the space available. This change in shots eases the tension, and we feel relief at Tony’s arrival just as the six did. When we finally see an exterior shot, we realize just how large the house is. Using these two techniques, the film has a much more visceral punch and keeps you engaged even though you know the six are bound to escape.
After all this praise, I have to point out the glaring shortcoming in character development. Sadly, this also makes the ending maudlin. We have all these characters: the six in hiding, Tony, his boss, the two Hollywood businessmen, the Canadian ambassador and his wife and their housekeeper. Oh, and don’t forget the Tony’s wife and kid! Understandably, there must be minor characters in a film of this scope, however those minor characters should not include the six. At the end of the film, the only characters I knew well were Tony and the two Hollywood men. The six never had much of a backstory, and so I never really cared for them. Ditto for the Canadian ambassador and his wife. To have all these essential characters and leave them inanimate is a shame. There was so much drama left unexplored. I asked myself what I would do if I were the ambassador. Would I hide the six Americans and risk my life and my wife’s? What if she was against it, would I overrule her? Then, you have to think of the more than a month spent in hiding. “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as Sartre’s “No Exit” or the actual sci-fi Canadian film “Cube” do a good job exploiting the drama of group dynamics in a claustrophobic and stressful situation. In this film, there is only one indication of group friction, which I feel is not true to life. Lastly, the worst way these flat characters spoil the film is the ending. Obviously, I’m about to spoil the ending so I’d skip to the end here if I were not wanting it spoiled. In the end, (last chance) Tony goes home to his wife and kid. Awwww, isn’t that great! The wife and kid are mentioned just often enough to tug at your heart strings, and as we have absolutely no idea why Tony and his wife are separated, the ending feels like such a cop out.
In short, “Argo” is worth watching for telling a good story well, but it leaves many good opportunities for drama unexplored. It’ll be interesting to compare this historical drama to “Lincoln” when it comes out. If you agree or disagree with my take on this film, leave a comment below to let me know.