THIS WEEKEND – A brace of movies, both praised by critics, one of which deserved the praise. I’ll start with the good news: “Argo”. Now that Ben Affleck has fled the dubious charms of JLo, he’s emerged as a tremendous director. His last few movies – “Town” and “Gone, Baby Gone” were both well crafted, taut thrillers. As is “Argo”.
You probably know the story – when the US Embassy was invaded in Iran in 1979 after the fall of the decadent, US imposed Shah; and 56 hostages were kidnapped (and held for 444 days), 6 embassy staff managed to escape. They hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house.
The job of the US State Department was to get them out of Iran and back to safety (before the Iranians discovered that they were 6 hostages short). The US State Department came up with a number of wild ideas (and director Affleck makes no bones in pointing out how generally out of touch the Department was – ideas such as teaching the Americans how to ride – unobtrusively?- for 300 miles to the border, or having them pretend to be visiting agriculture experts – in winter? Etc.) Eventually the best bad idea that wins, calls for exfiltration CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) to get them out by pretending that they were part of a pre-production team of Canadians scouting for locations for a sci-fi movie, “Argo”.
Usually when a movie boasts that it’s “based on a true story”, I want to run for the hills. But the truth of this story is fundamental to its core idea and the central element in helping to suspend our disbelief. If it were just ‘fiction’ the BS meter would be off the charts. So here we have a piece of fiction, in essence a ‘lie’ about a true story that is about the deception of the Iranian authorities via the fabrication of a truth.
As Mendez’ ludicrous concoction gains traction in the state Department, he’s allowed to recruits a couple of real (and convincingly cynical) Hollywood types – John Goodman (always superb) as make-up artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel. (At one stage, one of the CIA boffins observe, “so now you mean we own a film company?”)
These three conspire with fake storyboards, and a fake press conference with fake actors to con Variety into publishing something about the movie in order to give it its patina of authenticity. Nothing deceives quite like authenticity.
The brilliance of the movie is how deftly Affleck balances the outlandishness and inherent jokiness of the idea with the deathly seriousness of the reality. The movie slowly shifts gear from the absurdity of Hollywood to the nail biting suspense of the escape. It’s always a difficult task when you already know the outcome, to let the drama of the story work on your emotions, so as to still the rational brain and allow you the pleasure of surprise. (Of course “The Great Escape” did this brilliantly by surprising us in just how few actually escaped). But “Argo”pulls it all off and the last half an hour of the movie delivers moments of nail-biting tension that’s as good as it gets.
Affleck and his production designers have worked hard at ramping up the verisimilitude of the look. During the credits, he shows us just how closely the actors looked like the real people. The design is worked down to the minutest detail – the clunky phones, the big computers… the time it takes for information to travel. These days, after a few clicks on Google and quick call on a cell, no-one would have made it out.
The theme of truth and lies in the story is summarized by Mendez, Affleck’s character, in the way he overcomes the disbelief of his (understandably) terrified embassy staff. He does so not only by demonstrating supreme self-confidence that they’d succeed, but by letting slip the mask of the spy’s deception to reveal the truth about himself – his real name. Truth revealed to sell a lie. But there are so many complex emotions at play here – fear of failure, bravado, gentle protectiveness, anger with the indifference of the State Department – that Affleck’s performance falls short. His portrayal is fine, but a bit one dimensional and flat.
Still, that’s a minor complaint for such a major achievement.
Now “Rust and Bone” is entirely another matter. This highly regarded movie is from French director Jacques Audiard (“The Beat that my Heart Skipped” and the award winning, “A Prophet”). It stars Marion Cotillard as Stephane, a killer whale trainer whose life is dramatically altered when an accident results in the amputation of her two legs (and the symbolism here about loss of past and the existentialist need to recreate a new beginning are too many to go into). She hooks up with the brutish Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a philandering security guard who earns some extra money as a street fighter (he’s all violent action to her incapacity caused by a violent action). The story traces the arc of his relationship with her and how this evolving intimacy tempers his callous indifference to his son resulting in something of a genuine bond. It’s all very existentialist – you can leave who you are behind and recast yourself as if no history existed.
At least that’s what I think Audiard is getting at. But despite the charm of Ms Cotillard, there’s very little here to believe in. Whereas “Argo” worked hard to find that willing suspension of disbelief, “Rust and Bone” remains entirely unbelievable. You’ll spend 90 odd minutes in the company of two not very likeable or even interesting characters engaged in an unlikely relationship in an uninteresting story.
Maybe it’s better in French