Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fear & Cowardice: Argo

Starring and directing the darling of critical reviews, Ben Affleck's thriller Argo achieves the highest standards of technical perfection. Mr. Affleck's intuitive understanding of directorial techniques does nothing but give him credit worthy of praise and honor for deepening our bond with characters, experiencing fear and--most difficult of all--not just creating suspense, but sustaining it. His pacing is, to be honest, perfection and, in a thriller, pacing is everything. Not only is Mr. Affleck's directing talents amply displayed in the intimate, vulnerable portrayals of the six American refugees during the Iranian Revolution and his historical re-creation of the events but his own considerable talents for performing arts comes through in subtle yet definite moments of re-creating Tony Mendez, the CIA extractor working to get the Americans out before they are captured. Argo and Mr. Affleck deserve all the critical praise for the artistry of a fine film,... but,...
Why does this poster look like this? A part of the film is based on re-constructing shredded paper. Someone in the American embassy in Iran created a "yearbook" of all the embassy employees complete with photographs; after the Iranians storm the embassy, they find all the shredded documents and get child basket-weavers to put the pieces back together so the army has an idea who the escaped embassy employees are. This scenario in the film is one of which we should be aware because, we, too should be looking for what is missing and why. "Based on," as is written below the title above,communicates that the outline of the story reflects a historical occurrence, but the meat of the story not necessarily. That's why we have to take a special approach to historical films; just because we know it's not real history being presented, doesn't mean the filmmakers won't try to make you think that's how it really happened, which is a good reason to research a historical film before you see it.
There is quite a bit of smoke-and-mirrors going on, and I don't mean that in a good way. I couldn't write this review just after seeing the film; I greatly appreciated Affleck's technical mastery--and I will stick by that, he crafts the film well--but I worried that my gut reaction might be too hard on him; having seen director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, however, I realize she was putting for the acceptable agenda on American politics, not Affleck. As you have heard me say many times, a history film is never ever never ever never ever NEVER about history; history is the vehicle, the means, the embodiment of a narrative to discuss the here and the now. If a film is trying to accurately reproduce history it is a documentary; therefore, in a drama/thriller such as Argo, artistic license has to be given to leave things out, embellish, add, interpret, etc. That license granted by the viewer, however, does not mean we have to agree with the agenda being put forth, nor do we have to meekly submit our minds to the subliminal messages being sent to us.
What subliminal messages?
"John Wayne has been in the ground six months and this is what's left of America," one of the characters says, and it's a important statement because, in today's lingo, they really mean, "John Wayne and what he stood for is dead. Get over it. Get out of here." John Wayne, the great American hero of the wild west, the man who knew what was right and was willing to fight for it, the man who kept up American morale during World War II and became the icon of the unbeatable spirit is dead.
Nothing more subliminal than anything else we have discussed.
For example, Tony tells one of the embassy employees, "Play with me today, and I will get you out tomorrow." Actually, he's not telling the embassy worker that, he's telling us the viewer that because the entire film sets the goal of "getting out" (the husband of one refugee laments how his wife kept begging him to leave but he wanted to stay just a bit longer...). We have to remember that Argo opened shortly after the nearly-forgotten Benghazi attacks on the American consulate in Libya; while Taken 2 opened to a whopping $50 million weekend (making back its entire budget in just three days), Argo didn't pass $20 million; why? Trailers for Taken 2 actively show Liam Neeson's character actively pursuing the Middle Eastern kidnappers and actively saving his family, whereas trailers for Argo show Ben Affleck running away (likewise, in Skyfall--which begins in Istanbul--and Zero Dark Thirty trailers, we see pursuits for justice courage, not cowing and humble submission).
But isn't this a heroic story?
Hollywood adores nothing more than a movie about making movies (please recall that last year's Oscar winner was The Artist) and Argo is certainly about making movies. Long-time readers of this blog know we have been chronicling the politics of the last year as films demonstrate either pro-socialist or pro-capitalist leanings, so the political leanings of Argo should not surprise us. What are they exactly?  In the image above (you can click on it to open it in a separate window at full size to study it better), we see the office headquarters for the film-front Argo being used in the caper; if you look behind Lester (Alan Arkin) at the poster with the woman's mouth open, there is a cobra coming out of it with the caption, "Once this motion picture sinks its fangs into you, you'll will never be the same!" and that is exactly the agenda of Argo (Affleck's film) to bite down on us the viewer and not let us go; but what does a cobra do when it bites down on someone? Releases poison into their bloodstream. So what does the poster suggest Argo is doing to us? Cramming it down our throats. For better or for worse (and I will discuss this more below) cobras can often be linked to snake charming, often associated with the Middle East and Islamic culture, so we have a symbolized yet clear idea of what is being forced-fed to us; I'll discuss this in greater detail below, however, the cobra image is one example of the "Orientalism" Affleck incorporates into the film to inspire fear in the audience. Why? Being an Obama supporter, (though I won't go so far to call him a socialist, although he may be) Affleck's film demonizes the relationship between the US and Middle East for the sake of destabilizing oil trade and production so big oil companies being held by private owners can be run out of business and the government can then corner the market with green energy and decrease the amount of private business in the country so the government becomes bigger and more powerful and has a greater portion of the population dependent upon it so it can stay in power.
Doesn't Tony (Affleck) sweep in and rescue the Americans in distress in spite of the odds against him and befuddle the hostile militants wanting to kill and destroy America? Yes, this is what happens, but it's also clear the Americans are being forced out and we are in the passive role, unlike the active role seen in Taken 2, Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty, and that is what makes all the difference. There are at least two instances of the passive, feminine role being championed by Affleck: first, a sub-text of the story and secondly, a moment of reflective monologue on the situation in Iran and not heeding the warnings (discussed above). What complicates the matter is, when we see Affleck, we think of him as an American, not the Canadian in the story; further, there really aren't any situations permanently embedding his Canadian identity onto our minds (such as dramatically different accents or speech patterns) so, at least I as a viewer, kept seeing him as American instead of Canadian. (I have a very large and loyal readership in Canada,  for whom I am deeply grateful; I would love to hear your reactions to how you did or did not identify with Tony and why or why not!).
This view is another wall of the office for the Argo caper; please note the Canadian flag on the wall, left side. It's not just a tribute to Tony, it's a replacement for the American flag. While I disagree with a great deal in this article, I think it aptly summarizes how lop-sided and uninformed socialists view capitalism:  Is Canadian Socialism a Better Breed of Capitalism?
First, Tony and his wife are separated. 
Because men typically signify the founding fathers or the economy (the active principle) and women typically symbolize the Church or the motherland, when there is a marriage in trouble in a film, it typifies discontinuity between the founding father (the traditions of the country) and the motherland (the future of where the country will go). This is where the problem comes in: technically, this disparity should be read as a problem in the Canadian identity of tradition (capitalism) and the future identity (socialism?), but--again--because at least I as a viewer kept forgetting Tony's Canadian identity, I saw the rupture between the American founding fathers and the future of America, between the economy and the identity of the country. This is important because, as you can imagine, at the end of the film, they are reconciled.
This is one of those scenes which could be called a "high point" because from the height above the encoding in the rest of the film, we can see everything else more clearly. During the dialogue, Lester and Tony discuss their families, Tony admitting he and his wife are separated and Lester revealing that he lost his family because he was always working; sound familiar? It is a fair critique of capitalism that individuals abuse work and fail in their personal relationship with their family, however, that personal divergence in responsibility is not an inherent feature of capitalism, rather, an inherent feature of humanity (we make bad decisions sometimes) and one socialism can't promise to solve because it can't solve the human condition. Let's consider some of the details exhibited to establish that thesis. First, Lester's socks. Lester and Tony sit in a casual position, but Lester's paint legs are raised high, and his dark socks conflict with his light suit so as to intentionally draw attention to his feet; why? The feet symbolize the will, so the discussion in this scene--about Lester losing his family--"exposes" what caused the loss of his family because he had a dead will (black symbolizes death) and that's because he was working. On the other hand, look at Tony's arms: his sleeves go awfully high up his forearm, don't they? Why? To demonstrate that Tony has "nothing up his sleeve," and we can trust what is going on in this scene because he doesn't want to fool us,...  another detail is the bags of lunch they have with them (tacos or taco burgers, something like that). Notice anything in particular about the packaging? That's right, nothing! There is no business logo or brand anywhere on the fast food wrappers or bags or cups. Odd, isn't it, if this is a capitalist culture? Just like what we see in Gangster Squad, there is no more business, and there is no quality or innovation differentation if there are no brands, because we know there is a difference between Taco Bell, Taco Shop, El Pronto, the Our Lady Of Guadalupe Mexican stand, or the church ladies Mexican food raffle, etc., but there is no difference when it's owned by the government. Mr. Affleck, obviously, would prefer to take credit for making Argo for himself; I haven't heard or seen him giving his Golden Globes to President Obama, have you? But he expects us to hand over our businesses to the government?
While a typical film considers it essential to reconcile the family, different films advance their agendas through various decisions they make reflecting their political objectives. For Argo, it's only after the American refugees have gotten out of Iran that Tony can go back to his family suggesting (like with capitalism breaking-up Lester's  family) you can't have a family and be capitalist, you can't have oil and have a family, you have to decide and if you want a family, you have to abandon the Middle East, capitalism and brand-name taco burgers.
The Suleymanive Mosque, Istanbul. This landmark shows up in three films released in the last four moths: Taken 2, Skyfall and Argo.In Taken 2 and Skyfall, Liam Neeson's character and James Bond physically and actively dominate the scenery and landscape when this mosque is shown; when Tony enters Istanbul in Argo, however, he is dominated by the overwhelming presence of the mosque, signalling a slight but definite shift in how socialists want the new foreign policy to be crafted for. the Middle East: America dominated, not dominating.
Exactly how, though, does Argo propose to get us out of the Middle East?
ONLY A LIBERAL could have gotten away with the words and images the film makers include in Argo; if a conservative film maker had mentioned snake charmers and flying carpets, or likened the exotic orient to the theater of the absurd, they definitely would have gotten panned by the film critics and certainly would not have gotten any awards, certainly not the Oscar nominations. It's through applying Orientalism--fear of the unknowable "other" and their traditions and culture--that Affleck not only accuses us the audience of being small minded towards Middle Easterners, but plays off the legitimate fears we have seen in televised attacks of anti-American sentiment, so Affleck gets to have his cake and eat it, too. By making the attackers militant, and accentuating aspects of how foreign they are from Western culture, he slowly heightens the drama and the viewer's desire to "get out" as quickly as possible through anxiety and a deepening feeling that, "It's just not worth it."
That is defeatism Affleck embraces.
In Istanbul, Tony goes to meet an agent in the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, which used to be a Byzantine Church (Eastern Catholicism) until Muslims conquered the great city of Constantinople and took over the church for a mosque. It begs the question, is the holy wisdom of the film staying in a place where we are not wanted, or heeding the signs and getting out while we can? Again, Affleck highlighting a historical location of such importance feeds the general thesis of the film that America (as a Christian nation, or we at least once were) is a land conquered, not free.
As I said at the beginning of the post, Affleck has great technical mastery over the film, and no where more so than at the very end, when he changes gears without letting the audience know. As I stated, when a film utilizes historical events, artistic license should be granted for dramatization; what Affleck does is suddenly make the audience think he has delivered a documentary in mentioning the Carter Administration (Democrat) and kept hostages from being killed, then jumping to Democrat Bill Clinton and championing him because Clinton declassified the documents so Argo could be told; Affleck completely and intentionally ignores the role the Iranian Hostage Crisis played in Carter losing the presidential election to Ronald Reagan, AND, more importantly, that Iran released the hostages minutes after Reagan had been sworn in as president because the Middle East held so little respect for the Carter Administration and from the way we see Affleck portraying America being dominated throughout the film, we can understand why we didn't have any respect because that's how Democrats--even today--want it (and yes, I am furious having heard the lies Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congressional Hearing Committees today about her lack of knowledge about the Benghazi attacks on the American consulate).
At the airport as they are trying to get out, and the Iranian guards question them about the film they intend to make as one of the refugees regales them with the "magical stuff" films are made of to weave their beautiful narratives; we have to ask, "Are we not the ones really being fooled? There is no movie, just a plot to "get us out?"
In conclusion, Argo exhibits great technical skills by Mr. Affleck who not only knows what techniques and tricks to use for enhancing action and emotion, but also has the discipline to resist adding unnecessary dressing to a scene that doesn't require it; however, I feel there is a large quantity of dangerous political theory being advanced to the detriment of the country through the intentional misalignment of inconvenient historical fact for which Mr. Affleck should be held accountable, just like the Secretary of State. 
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner