Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 Catch Up: Argo (B)

(I'm trying to catch up on as many Oscar-baiting movies and favorite films of the year as I can by the end of the end of the month, so some reviews might be somewhat abbreviated)

Everything I could've ever wanted from Ben Affleck's third directorial effort can be found in the opening scene: A perfectly directed and acted recreation of the Iranian militants and students storming the U.S embassy in Tehran at the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis of the late 1970s. Grounded firmly in reality while still technically a dramatization of the historical events, it's an impeccably crafted introductory sequence. Affleck directs with a visceral intensity; unwilling to sugarcoat and make light of the looming tragedy. Not once does he cut away from the embassy, and presents the situation almost in real time. The only way to further intensify the proceedings would be if it had all been done in a single take, which admittedly would be downright impossible with all of the supporting characters in play. There are workers hastily trying to shred all documents within the embassy, ordinary Americans swept up in the terrifying ordeal, armed guards who have to protect the building and all those inside, while realizing that firing a single shot could provoke war between the U.S and Iran. Meanwhile, a mob of angry Iranians are slowly swarming the embassy, and a peaceful conclusion is no longer possible. Something horrible is going to happen; this mob is doom for the inhabitants of the embassy, but no one really knows what the inevitable horrors will entail.

Around 15 minutes in length, this scene gives us a brief glimpse into an alternate future of cinema, like on the Doc's blackboard in Back to the Future Part II. This is a proxy reality in which Affleck continues the directorial winning streak found in the opening sequence throughout the rest of his film. Because of his sheer mastery of directing, Ben Affleck sweeps every award for filmmaking, and is proclaimed to be one of the greatest filmmakers alive today. He gets compared to a 1970s William Friedkin, or maybe modern day Martin Scorsese, or even an improved Thomas McCarthy because he not only understands the human condition, but can throw in a chase or two and still pull everything off. This is not hyperbole by any means: The recreation of the impromptu raid which led to the Iran Hostage Crisis is one of the best things put to screen in memory.

Unfortunately, what comes after this masterfully executed sequence is little more than a slightly generic heist movie; albeit one in which the crew are also the target. The decline in quality is less of a Splash Mountain-esque experience than a steadily declining ramp. Gradually, Argo transforms from pure flawlessness into overly dramatized Hollywood fluff. While that may sound like a blasting critique against Affleck's feature, it's more like admitting your straight-A student started the year off incredibly well, but ended the final marking period with a high C. For an ordinary caper with a politically charged twist, Affleck succeeds in directing a tightly edited, fairly entertaining crowd pleaser, but never again reaches the heights promised from the embassy invasion.

Grade: B

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