Going into Argo, I thought I knew what to expect. I assumed that it was going to be a typical race against the clock hostage movie where men strut around saying crude phrases and would probably involve a car chase or two. But Argo wasn’t your typical action packed movie. Argo was… classy. Refined even.
If Ben Affleck could win any award, I would place my vote as Most Improved. After his dismal directing attempt at recreating a Scorsese in 2010, I thought I’d seen all that I could expect from the Beantown boy with a pretty face (even prettier with a big beard). But Affleck’s portrayal of CIA agent Tony Mendez was subdued, understated and spot on. He’s a loving father, but isn’t living with his kid. He always seems to have a drink is his hand, yet obviously restrains himself from drinking. He doesn’t say much, but when he says something it’s powerful and profound. Sitting in on a meeting as an unknown agent, we should think of him as a jerk for turning down the government’s every idea. But Mendez is not a jerk, he just cares about these people and he’s willing to risk his life for them. Mendez’s stoic demeanor creates the perfect contrast to the chaos around him. His government can’t seem to back a decision, his movie producers fight hard to get the fake movie made and his hostages can’t seem to agree on anything.
Arguably, the best scene of the movie takes place in a car, when the hostages get stuck in the middle of a riot. The car inches forward into the crowd as protestors slam their hands against the windows. Nothing is really happening, no one is saying anything, the scene is over in about 90 seconds and yet it’s terrifying. Dozens of actors share the spotlight and yet each performance is executed memorably and honestly. You can feel the tension and panic rolling off of every character, even the goofy roles played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
The largest stretch was connection between the “monster movie” and the actual hostage situation. Hollywood felt frivolous and empty in comparison to the intense situation at hand. A quick set up that a movie was going to be made was necessary (spoiler: we KNOW it’s not going to be made anyway) but carried very little weight once Mendez was alone with a few measly passports and not much else to show in Iran. But as the clock ticked away and the plane was getting ready to leave, the chain of events was timed ridiculously well and was surprisingly heartfelt.
The biggest surprise in Argo wasn’t that it was a real story, it was the humanity of it all. These characters don’t have a back story and we only know the basic facts (these two are married, she studied English, etc.) Yet we’re entirely invested in their well being. What could’ve been a shallow movie purely focused on action, was very smart and very tender.
I don’t get very nerdy about James Bond. As far as I’m concerned, he represents the cheesy male ideal of being a pretty boy who’s always one step ahead in smarts and two pushups ahead of the bad guys. He drives fancy cars, wears well fitting suits and can seduce any passive woman after he’s done with his martini. But I must admit, Skyfall is my new favorite Bond movie, mostly because it flips Bond on his head.
The movie starts out with Bond failing a mission and is presumed dead. The rest of the movie he’s injured and told that he’s too old and too outdated for his role. Computer technology mystifies him and he’d much rather rest on his laurels of old fashioned cars and drinks. Suddenly, Bond is a lot less suave and moving slower than we’ve seen him before. But like any classy guy, Bond doesn’t try to fit in, he just sticks to what he’s good at. After the agency and M are attacked by an unknown agent from the past, Bond is sent back out. Though the shots in Shanghai are short, they’re majestically beautiful, artistically perfect and some of the best cinematography that I’ve ever seen. (and there’s Komodo Dragons. I LOVE Komodo Dragons)
When we finally put a face to the rogue agent out to get M, Javier Bardem plays the psychotic villain (yet again) to perfection. Rather play an angry, vindictive role, he somehow manages to play a vulnerable, almost pathetic part. Feeling that M had wronged him in the past, he wants revenge specifically from her. Bond then refocuses his efforts and brings M to his deceased parent’s estate in rural Scotland, Skyfall. Discovering Bond’s past as a young orphan further weakens his tough guy exterior but allows a more vulnerable side to be shown.
I understand why this movie might not go over particularly well with Bond fanatics. It’s kind of like ripping the cape off of your favorite super hero… you just don’t want to see him so exposed, so raw. But I think the Bond franchise has done something incredibly smart: they’ve started to rethink their strategy and make fun of themselves. They realize that the next generation of Facebook and Xbox won’t understand James Bond. They have to create a hipper, less classic version for new audiences to understand. By breaking Bond down a bit, we can slowly piece him back together again as something shiny and new.