Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Golden Fleecing

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a reaction--a commentary, an interpretation, a criticism--of the world we live in, and it can't help but be shaped by the material conditions of its creation. Most people know this, practically take it for granted. What gets less attention is how subsequent events shade our understanding and response. Argo was ostensibly intended as a taut and reasonably fun thriller that told the fascinating story of the Iranian hostage rescue mission that didn't fail; at most, its real-world resonance would be a modest rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter's reputation. Fate would have it the movie hit theaters barely a month after the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the worst diplomatic disaster since, well, the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The timing can't help but color one's response.

Recent history gives Argo's opening scenes an especially visceral immediacy. Cutting archival footage of the 1979 storming of the American embassy with period perfect re-enactments, and depicting attempts within the embassy offices to deal with the rapidly escalating situation, the sequence has a terrific on-the-ground quality that starts the movie off with bang. By so vividly recreating the events of '79, it provides an uneasy vicarious experience of the Egyptian and Libyan missions of but a month ago. (I don't know if Warner Brothers ever considered delaying the movie's release out of "sensitivity" regarding the Libya attack, but since such moves are stupid and self-defeating, I'm quite glad they did not.)

After six American diplomats manage to escape and find asylum in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the movie settles into what is essentially a heist flick mold. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA rescue ops badass, is tapped by State Department mover and shaker Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to figure out how to rescue the six Americans. He eventually settles on a plan, "the best bad option," to enter the country posing as a Hollywood producer scouting locations for a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, and to disguise the diplomats as his production crew and take them back with him. To do this he needs to create a believable dummy production--including script, concept art, and authentic trade magazine publicity--with the help of Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Which is hard enough before having to actually go to Tehran and get the Americans out before the sweatshop workers piecing together their shredded embassy photos can alert the Revolutionary Guards that there are Americans hiding in Tehran.

The plot pretty much takes care of itself, explaining the steps to be followed and then upping the ante with a raft of complications along the way. It's solid stuff, and the script and actors deftly balance the grave seriousness of the problem with the absurdity of the solution at hand. The good humor of Arkin and Goodman (who at one point tells Affleck, who directed this movie, that you "can train a rhesus monkey to direct in a day") dominates the Hollywood-heavy first half, somewhat to the detriment of the back end. As they can only sit around and wait to be rescued, the American hideaways are only given the barest of character development, and so it falls mostly on Affleck to carry the picture once it moves to Iran. He does good work as the smartest man in the room, steely and unflappable except for a concern about having to be away from his family that is exactly as perfunctory as it needs to be. Still, it would have been nice to get to know the trapped Americans better in order to contrast them with the roles they are forced to adopt for their survival.

Without getting into too much detail, the movie's third act goes perhaps too far in the use of creative license. The action got to be enough that it took me out of the film, and I started to wonder how much of this was true. It's not a fair complaint--there really was a lot that was fictionalized, to the movie's benefit--and William Goldenberg's editing does wonders tying together three plot threads that moment-by-moment push the tension ever higher. But the movie does start to feel (ironically?) a little too Hollywoody, whereas everything that came before was believable and restrained.

Maybe it's just recent events, the "too soon" factor, that make me fault the movie for its drift into fancy. If so, it works more than one-way. For not only does the September 11 consulate attack shape the way one approaches Argo, but Argo shapes the way one looks at the consulate attacks. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that the operation is successful but the U.S. government must publicly give all credit to the Canadians because the embassy hostages would otherwise face brutal reprisal. The movie ends here, but in the real world history marched on: those hostages and the failed attempt to free them, for whose sake the government buried the story of its most spectacular rescue mission, helped destroy Jimmy Carter's presidency, and it was not until he left office that they were freed.

Too often secrecy is invoked by our government today as a means of covering up information that would embarrass it. Argo presents an all-too-rare instance of secrecy that did precisely the opposite, that downplayed success for the greater good until 1997, when the mission was declassified. If there's a takeaway from the timing of the movie's release, it's that there is often more going on in international relations than we realize. Unknown unknowns, and all that. Moreover, the people who are involved in these hot spots, do realize what's going on. Or, at least, they know the risks. As an end-of-movie caption inform us, all of the rescued diplomats, in spite of their harrowing experience, returned to the foreign service. One imagines Ambassador Chris Stevens would have done the same.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Controls the Past, Controls the Future

"It's a precise way of describing a fuzzy process," says Looper's Bruce Willis about time-traveling and its implications for the future. He's actually being quite modest. Most time-travel stories must wrestle with the creation of a time paradox, the most elegantly simple of which may be that of the original Terminator (in which Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Conner to protect his mother Sarah Conner, and in the process falls in love with her and fathers John Conner, who sends Kyle Reese back in time...). Looper rather cheerfully dispenses with such complications, even as it shares much with such films as The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys, yet it still manages to be one of the smartest and most exciting sci-fi films to come around in some time.

The year is 2044, and American society is in a state of long decline, with mass poverty and  violence pervading the streets. Everything in this (well-realized) world, including the minor advances in technology, seems to be in a state of disrepair or dysfunction. Even humanity's one significant forward step, the development in a minority of the population of low-level telekinesis, is only good enough for guys to use it to pick up chicks at the bar.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seemingly one of the few people around with money to burn. Joe is a Looper, whose job it is to kill and destroy the bodies of the undesirables of an organized crime syndicate from thirty years in the future, when time-travel has been invented and outlawed. Loopers are so named because they agree from the start that their final target will be their future self--the bosses don't want any evidence or witnesses--at which point they get a severance package and are free to waste their next thirty years. Closing the loop, they call it. Lately, though, Loopers have been getting closed with increasing frequency, and sure enough, Joe's future self (Willis) arrives for execution. Joe recognizes him and hesitates long enough for his quarry to get away.

Director and writer Rian Johnson demonstrated with his 2005(!) debut Brick that he knew how to conjure worlds, but his work here is impressive all the same. The concept could all too easily have become a dumb, violent chase, but in Johnson's hands it becomes so much more. Even when dispensing with heavy exposition, the movie is always grounded in its characters, with the two Joes developing side-by-side: as we learn more about Old Joe and his maturation we see the selfish, cold-hearted Young Joe himself begin to thaw. Many of the best moments, accordingly, are not guns-blazing setpieces, but smaller business, like an amazingly tense scene that just involves characters maneuvering around a small house trying not to be spotted. There is quite a bit of gear-shifting in the plot, particularly with the film's second half, but the developments are seeded early on and are a welcome change of setting and pace.

Besides being well-crafted, the script comes with a dry wit that at times positively slays. (The name "Shanghai," super-imposed, got one of the biggest laughs in the theater I was in; you'll understand when you see it). The visuals are uniformly excellent, contrasting the plainness and uniformity of a sugar cane field with the cramped, chaotic squalor of the city, and the imagery becomes, rather surprisingly, more distinct and striking as the movie gets further into its scenario. There's an image of a boy in a leveled cane field that, especially in the context of the movie, is straight-up eerie.

Good writing and production values can only take you so far, but fortunately Johnson has assembled a stellar ensemble to bring his world to life. Levitt does excellent work channeling Willis' coolly brutal  persona, while Willis becomes truly unhinged and menacing when the nature of his mission is finally revealed. The two are bolstered by a supporting cast that ranges from good to mind-bogglingly astounding. Paul Dano is well-used in his brief appearance as an excitable fellow Looper, and Jeff Daniels shows great range, initially coming off warm and funny and going stone cold at a moment's notice. Emily Blunt comes in relatively late, about halfway through the movie, yet as farm girl Sara she holds her own against Levitt, with whom she shares the most screen time. Yet far and away the most astonishing performance comes from five year-old Pierce Gagnon, who frighteningly inhabits his character. To say anything about said character other than that he becomes critically important to the story would spoil too much; suffice it to say that Gagnon's is a "child actor" performance the caliber of which audiences haven't seen since The Sixth Sense (incidentally, another film starring Bruce Willis).

As mentioned, the film is upfront about the murkiness of its time-travel mechanics. Contrary to the suggestions of its title, it avoids creating an endlessly recursive paradox, as well as anything like a splintered-off parallel dimension, in favor of an approach similar to Back to the Future, where the changes in the future--and the changes in the protagonist from the future--happen gradually, in keeping with the rhythms of the "present." In essence, Future Joe doesn't receive scars and memories until Present Joe does. It's kind of a cheat, honestly, as it was in Back to the Future, but it is both creative and consistent in the application of its rules. 

This counts for more than one would think. The Butterfly Effect, the most recent high-profile Hollywood time-travel flick that immediately comes to mind, suffered severely from a repetitively-applied plot device and a tawdry obviousness (it worked child pornography and prison sex into its story) in its approach.
That Looper manages in spite of its occasionally shaky logic to be fun and high-minded and never insulting is a rare treat, for which we should thank our lucky stars.