Thursday, November 22, 2012

Spies Like Us: Skyfall and Argo

(reflections on two movies, SKYFALL directed by Sam Mendes, and ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck.)

Affleck in ARGO; Bardem, Craig and Dench in SKYFALL
How refreshing it is to see two Hollywood movies that focus on personal struggles and leave the rest of the planet intact!   I once counted three different versions of the apocalypse during previews, before the feature film handed me a world-wide conspiracy that would end life as we know it. But let us give thanks this Thanksgiving for two tension-packed spy movies that give us more character than CGI effects. 

SKYFALL focuses on just a handful of characters.  Daniel Craig as James Bond has a face worth the close attention.  Craggy and a little goofy, it's the face of a boy in middle age, registering amusement, determination, fleeting self-doubt, and hurt disillusionment, even in the absence of dialogue.  Bond's boyhood is emphasized throughout this movie.  His past figures importantly in the plot, and he shares the film's focus with the character he jocularly calls "Mum," Judi Dench as "M."  She is the object of a personal animus from the villain, played by Javier Bardem, who tries to seduce Bond away from her. 

Director Mendes gives us lots of action choreographed for story first, spectacle second.  We get lots of laughs, including the chuckles of recognition whenever there's reference to a Bond trademark -- girl, the line "Bond, James Bond," the car, the gadgets, and the martini, the cocky theme: they're all here.   But affection and sympathy are the main line through the story, the action being incidental -- where other movies have been the opposite, injecting sympathy at intervals to relieve the monotony of mayhem. 

ARGO tells a real spy-story, the de-classified account of how six Americans made it back home from Iran via Canada in 1980.   Comic - book style story boards remind us how the US and UK raised up the Shah in 1952 to reclaim oil fields that a secular, democratically-elected president had nationalized, how the Shah enforced his regime, and how the religious revolution led to bloody and violent recrimination.  Seeing the storming of the US embassy from the inside, we appreciate how it feels that forces beyond anyone's control are engulfing the mild-mannered personnel inside.   Director Affleck thus gives us a broad view of how Iranians have legitimate gripes against the US, but we also see American individuals doing their best -- low-level diplomats, high-level bureaucrats, and humane soldiers. One officer goes out alone, unarmed, to "reason" with the mob, a valiant effort that fails. 

After that tumultuous start, Affleck draws us into the true story of how a CIA agent named Menendez comes up with a plan to rescue the Americans.  Estranged from wife and young son, he has his brainstorm when he shares a long-distance moment of bonding with his son, watching a sci - fi movie together.  He concocts the scheme of rescuing the Americans by posing as Canadian producer of a sci-fi film to be called "Argo."  How he convinces the Brass that this is the "best bad idea they've got" and how he convinces dubious Hollywood professionals (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to commit to pretending to make a movie that will never exist, make for high comedy.  Even then, we get one of the many touching moments in the movie -- when Arkin, as a director, dubious about the plot, glances at a TV clip of a blindfolded hostage, and his humanity overrides skepticism.

The rest of the movie is about relationships and trust.  Besides Affleck and his collaborators, we see the six Americans, holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence, barely holding up under the pressure of hiding, watched with suspicion by their Iranian housekeeper.  Menendez as movie producer "Harkins" has to win them over, and then teach them to act.   Tension builds, even though we know how the story turns out, because new obstacles arise as the moment of escape approaches.  The pace quickens as we jump from locations around Tehran to offices in DC and a movie set in Hollywood, watching members of the team fight for the success of the mission.

The whole story is so unlikely that laughs come easily, even in the midst of real-life tension.  Iranian guards, earnest and frightening, are also fascinated by the sillly sci-fi story.  There's an extended sequence juxtaposing two media events across the globe:  a trumped-up reading of "Argo" by actors in cheesy Star Wars ripoff costumes alternating a reading of a revolutionary's indictment of the US. 

A student of mine recently disagreed with me when I said "the incidents of a story are nothing; it's about character." He said, "Wrong, incidents are everything."  In these movies, the incidents certainly had me kicking the railing in front of me at the local multi-plex, but characters and their choices are what remain with me.

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