Reporting Eric Henderson
Who do you trust more — Hollywood or the U.S. Government?
If you listen to either, you’re probably apt to say neither. But actor-director-hunk Ben Affleck’s tense new thriller Argo aims to restore your faith in both. Or, at least, it aims to restore your faith in Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Government and the Hollywood that used to work under busted mountainside letters, the Hollywood that used to pump out jittery, relevant political movies by, say, Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men).
Argo tells the declassified story of how the CIA worked in conjunction with Hollywood players to set up a smokescreen in order to rescue six Americans who managed to escape the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution, but couldn’t manage to escape Tehran and spent weeks upon weeks holed up at Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s home.
Affleck, working with a script by Chris Terrio, plays Tony Mendez, a CIA technical operations officer who convinces the covert branch that all their scenarios for smuggling those six refugees out from under an increasingly hostile regime are bunk. Terrio concocts a fake movie-scouting trip for a blatant Star Wars rip-off called Argo, and recruits make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and former A-list director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help him set up his subterfuge, which includes planting stories for the production in Variety. Hollywood’s legion of phonies supply the film with enough levity to offset the increasingly grim, pulse-pounding situation on the other side of the world.
Argo almost dares hardline skeptics of either the U.S. intelligence community or the Dream Factory to maintain their distance, though it’ll probably play best among those who are only fashionably ambivalent about both and perpetually ready to believe again. (Its Oscar nomination haul is all but assured.)
As a director, the professional, transparent Affleck is the right man to perform this particular cross-breeding, though I still wonder what it might have been like had it gone the full-on meta route and actually made the fake movie within a movie as a metaphor for the events depicted in the movie.
Then again, maybe I don’t. It probably would’ve come out something akin to Seven Psychopaths, the new film from In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh, in which writer’s block manifests itself in the form of countless daydreamed detours.
Colin Farrell plays Marty (or is it Martin?), a screenwriter who can’t seem to set down the bottle long enough to clear his head and commit a script to paper. The fact that his basic idea — to orchestrate a hyper-violent action movie hemorrhage about psychotic killers that ends with an endorsement of peace — is supposedly a very tall order isn’t helping, either. (Never mind that almost every action movie at least pays lip service to the notion that violence doesn’t really solve anything … except the problem of making an exciting movie.)
Maybe it’s the beer goggles, but Marty can’t see the forest for the trees. Namely, he doesn’t seem to notice until too late that every single person in his life is actually certifiable according to the DSM-IV. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Billy’s partner in a neighborhood dognapping racket Hans (Christopher Walken)? Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), the Mafioso whose Shih Tzu gets lifted by the two? Tom Waits’ rabbit stroking, self-described vigilante who offed, among others, the Zodiac killer? All nuts, to varying degrees.
Psychopaths is so eager to please, the kidnapped Shih Tzu winds up being the least likeable character, but Martin McDonagh has as little control over his meta-pathology as his onscreen, self-named counterpart has over booze.
It would’ve been plenty sufficient for McDonagh to ditch the discursive writer’s workshop fantasy sequences and simply stick to his otherwise thin premise in service of bringing great, eccentric performances from a peyote-craving Walken, a spaced Waits and the perpetual misfit BMOC Rockwell to snappy-worded life, like an Avengers for the mordantly misanthropic set.