British director repackages Tolstoy for the masses (sort of) while Ben Affleck sharpens his directing spurs with a wacky '70s heist caper.
Ben Affleck’s latest crack at directing dips into the political thriller genre by way of some Ocean’s Eleven heist comedy. Taking up leading acting and directing duties again like he did on The Town, Argo is based on a stranger-than-fiction CIA mission to rescue a group of hostages by having them pose as a film crew. The setting is Iran 1979, Islamic militants have taken over the US embassy and five Americans escaped, hiding out at the Canadian ambassador’s home with the promise of certain death if they are found.
With things getting so incendiary that even the Canadian embassy is planning on jumping ship, the crazy Hollywood heist is hatched by a bearded Ben Affleck (hey, it’s the '70s). Affleck’s CIA extraction specialist calls up his Hollywood make up artist buddy (John Goodman) who brings in an eccentric producer (Alan Arkin) and together they set up a fictional sci-fi production in LA called (you guessed it) Argo. Affleck then heads out to Iran to assign the embassy targets phony Hollywood gigs and the con is set in motion.
The structure is very much one of a heist thriller, which Affleck proved he could carry off in The Town. Surprisingly (given how somber his previous directorial efforts have been), the best material in Argo is set in Los Angeles. Goodman and Arkin make for a hysterical team of schemers in a gentle satire of the art of Hollywood bullshitting. Affleck also shares some great scenes with Bryan Cranston as his inevitably stressed superior whose scenes alter from buddy comedy and white knuckle suspense.
The sequences in Iran almost feel like they are from another movie, shot in the handheld realist thriller style founded in The Battle of Algiers. Of course it’s entirely appropriate that those scenes feel different and Affleck does a good job of bouncing between the tones without much audience whiplash.
Ultimately, Argo is probably Affleck’s weakest film as a director, which is more of a testament to how good those previous efforts were than anything else. Despite the basis in fact and the tragic subject matter, the movie somehow feels a little lighter and less substantial than his previous crime dramas. It’s still a perfectly enjoyable film, but all the nods to great '70s filmmaking (including the classic Warner Brothers logo from that decade at the start) only serve to underline that fact. It’s still a perfectly entertaining and clever thriller than reaffirms that the actor is a legitimate talent behind the camera.
We probably all should have seen it coming that Joe Wright and Keira Knightley would eventually mount a work of classic Russian literature as part of their ongoing series of costume dramas. Their tag-team take on Tolstoy’s 'Anna Karenina' includes all of the pained emotions, sweeping camera moves, and lavish costumes that one would expect and it delivers on those expected promises well.
What makes the duo’s latest collaboration somewhat startling is the fact that it’s also an oddball self-conscious, almost Brechtian experience in audience alienation. Like Dogville, the film flaunts the fact that it was shot on a single stage and is filled obvious artificiality. Of course this being Wright and not Lars Von Trier, there are at least walls and rooms. But it’s still an intriguing experiment.
The decision apparently came in pre-production (much to screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s surprise), with Wright staging the entire movie in a faux theatre at Shepperton Studios. The director apparently considered it a way to represent how the lives of the characters were performed like puppets on a stage, through ritualised unnatural behavior and costumes rather than clothing.
The result plays out something like a Ken Russell movie (minus all that nasty/awesome perversion), constantly reminding the audience they are watching something artificial through the use of model trains, fake horses, actors freezing in tableau, and all manner of other idiosyncracies that popped into Wright’s head. It’s an intriguing way of forcing vibrancy into a fairly cold and calculated tale, albeit one sure to split audiences.
The cast perform the material completely straight, as if nothing unusual were happening around them. Knightley adds some venom to her ice queen persona as Anna, Jude Law comes off unexpectedly small and pathetic (in a good way) as Alexei Karenin, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is both dapper and appropriately prickish a Count Vronsky, and most of the supporting players play somewhat comic versions of their characters.
It’s certainly an unusual take on a well-known tale, offering both an honorable adaptation and surreal experiment at once. The result isn’t a masterpiece and will most likely irritate purists. However, given the choice between this slightly mad adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel or a pleasantly stuffy traditional take, at least this offers the unexpected.