Argo

When the screen faded to black and Ben Affleck's name appeared, everyone clapped. Renata Adler notes in 1968 that clapping for a movie is a peculiar gesture, "quite different from what it means in live theater." Who are you applauding? Nobody is there to hear you clap except the rest of the audience, and you. This was quiet, as applause goes. This is Ashland; audiences are gentle folk with multicultural pretensions. We listen to NPR. For us, Mr. Affleck had moved in just the right ways in his turn on the stage; he affirmed our concerns, and successfully navigated our national shame to give us a patriotic happy ending that we could approve of. For that moment, the audience basked in the communal warmth of their shared appreciation. I'm in basically the same boat as far as qualms, but I'm one of those prideful people who can't bear to participate in a crowd. I felt at once superior and pathetic for getting up to leave--passing relaxed, vaguely postcoital smiles that I envied and reviled--as everyone else stayed for the rest of the credits.

I gather that Affleck feels a similar mixture of pride and shame about his country's involvement in Iran. His movie opens as a grave documentary, with footage of the Iranian Revolution. A voiceover narrates Iran's history up to 1979. The Shahs. The democratic election of a president. The period in which (the narrator tells us proudly) Iran's oil was their own. The U.S. installation of a new Shah (here the narrator's voice turns bitter). The 1979 uprising against this Shah. It's not that I disagree on any particular point (I'm not informed enough), but I have to wonder why this bit of exposition is here. This is the story of getting American "hostages" (actually they're just hiding out in the Canadian ambassador's house in Tehran) out of Iran. It's an American story. This five-minute introduction to a place that throughout the rest of the movie must at all costs be fled is the lefty equivalent of a hail-mary. Without it, the audience would not have clapped, but only enjoyed, somewhat guiltily. Affleck is atoning for his privileged Americanness in a popular style: by having fits of reaching for the experience of who he isn't.

The experience that the movie can't show becomes quite clear when the actual movie begins with a crowd of Iranian protesters storming the U.S. embasy. Affleck's direction in this scene exercises admirable control, but this I think is because he's straining to resolve it in a politically correct way. It flicks back and forth between the panicked Americans in the embasy, and the crowd. The crowd is a crowd: impossible to sympathize with, because this kind of sympathy has the individual as its basic unit. What can an American director who wants not to offend anyone do, when given Americans under a siege of foreign righteousness? I suppose you can push the onus of morality onto individual irrationality, which is to say you can do away with moral thought entirely. To protect the embassy there are some policemen of some sort or other, in full riot gear, with tear gas launders. Their commander tells them over the radio to "only use the tear gs a last resort--I repeat, as a last resort only." Cut immediately to tear gas canisters being launched into the crowd.

What is the point of a movie that on the one hand refuses to be overtly political, and on the other refuses to be a drama--something it seems to view as being of inadequate importance? One might equally ask what is the point of Affleck's taut montages, in which he smashes all the locuses of tension together? A man behind me during one of these breathtaking multiscenes said "interesting juxtaposition." It was. All at once, prisoners are sent to a firing squad and almost but not quite executed, a press event Hollywood party in which the actors read the terrible Argo script aloud proceeds gaily and vapidly along, and some other thing that I can't quite remember. I'm sure it was important. But that's the trouble. Shouldn't I remember, if this meticulously edited sequence--in which audio from all three scenes piles up into a cacophony-- really made an impact? I remember a similar, simpler technique in Lord of the Rings: while on the raging battlefield millions die at a king's strategically poor orders, this king eats cherry tomatoes alone. He makes quite a mess, spurting tomato juice with every bite. Cutting back and forth between these two things, the king's minstrel sings a plaintive song. It was memorable because its moralistic meaning was too unmistakeable. Affleck's crucibles of disparity are just the opposite. The justaposition is interesting, and not at all obvious in its intent, but all I can do is scratch my head, and feel inexplicably somewhat moved.

The script, likewise, aims away from the head toward the heart, but politely fires a very small calibur. Hearts pump with and are revealed by epistles, and this movie's heart is written on a postcard to Affleck's character's son as he goes to the airport. "Sorry I missed ya, buddy-man," he writes. He tried to call him for his birthday, but nobody picked up. His son's absent presence is the tiny looseness from which narrative flows. As the direction is restrainted, so is the world these characters inhabit. When Affleck's character is on the phone with his son (someone who is nerver on screen), there's a needful lapse. His son is telling him about school, but his voice mutes out as Affleck spaces out, staring at the television, on which Planet of the Apes is playing (his son is watching the same). He's listening, but all we get is emotional content. The idea to make a fake movie as a cover to rescue the Americans stranded in Iran comes to him during a swell of love for his son.

This particular brand of masculine sentimentality for the family holds throughout. Affleck's character and the fake filmmaker he hires (Alan Arkin) bond over the absence of their families, from whom they are both estranged ultimately, they think, because they're in "the bullshit business." In this movie, the bullshit business is lifesaving potential; the ability to create, believe, and convince others of narratives is survival out there in the public sphere. What they're saying is that their heroism tragically seperates them from domestic life. Which is nice for them because it's sad for them. How else to maintain such a sentimental attachment but absence? And how else to drive the creation of narrative but by this attachment? Besides, as Arkin's character says, "kids need the mother." One thing about a period piece based on a true story is that characters can say things like this without comment, cinematic or verbal.

I don't mean to suggest that the script or Affleck's direction are dumb. Rather, the movie's intelligence all goes into saying as little as possible.

Affleck is capable of trying to engage with the world. The Town wrapped its head around the phenomenon of how one becomes trapped in a place, a family, and a destiny, try as one might to escape it and its criminality. It's about a very particular place; I got the impression there was research involved in writing the script. Argo's script is too scary to direct because too potentially contentious. Affleck tries to tiptoe around Iran, however much time the camera spends there, because of how relevant the subject matter is right now, when two presidential candidates are debating about what to do or not to do about the country. He becomes much like the protagonist he plays--an escape artist.

He has a boyish face, with sharp rather than rough features--as angular as a young Bruce Willis, but open and gentle about the eyes somehow, especially in profile. Both can summon an immense, suffocating smugness, but Affleck has chosen to avoid doing so in this movie. Instead he is a man so conflicted he's taciturn, and rigorously maintains a neutral expression, just barely smiling when pleased. When their flight out of Tehran reaches altitude and the stewardesses begin serbing drinks, the six he's rescued cheer and embrace. He sits alone at a window seat and allows himself a tiny, sheepish, one-sided smile.

14 October 2012