Argo, Affleck and Hollywood

Argo is well and truly back under the microscope. Months after its initial cinema release it’s been propelled into the limelight again with the big awards for the film itself and actor/director Ben Affleck at both the Golden Globes and, more recently, the BAFTAs. And next Sunday the film goes head-to-head with eight others in an attempt to win the Best Picture at the Academy Awards: an achievement which, I argue, would be very much deserved.

But let’s back up for a second. Before looking in further depth at the particular merits of Argo, it’s worth remembering Affleck’s acceptance speech (for Best Director) at the BAFTAs only a week or so ago. In it, he concluded by stating that this was his “second act” (referring to a disastrous run of form on-screen a number of years ago, plus his relationship with J-Lo being played out in the public eye), and – addressing no-one in particular, and yet everyone at once – stated that “you’ve given me that, this industry has given me that”. What’s interesting, then, is the politics of Argo, especially in light of what he appears to say here.

Argo – though enjoyed by almost everyone – has had its attitude come under fire from certain quarters. Filmmaker Mark Cousins, for instance, labelled the film “Iranophobic” on Twitter, and wrote an article (easily Google-able) on its flaws. In it, he accuses it of formulaic thinking when it comes to the portrayal of non-Western citizens and locations, with the obvious focus here on Iran.

However, though Cousins concedes that Affleck (and the film itself) attempts to be even-handed, he doesn’t believe that these efforts quite come to fruition. What’s interesting about all of the above is that, for me, Argo is actually a film about Hollywood over everything else, with the motion pictures industry and the absurdity of those who dwell in it taking centre stage, with everything else following afterwards.

There have been few, if any, who have raced to defend the poor souls of Hollywood – be it those working there every day, the big guys with money in the studios, people trying to make it in L.A., or whoever – and yet the moment a film is seen as culturally ignorant or insensitive, the knives are immediately grabbed and sharpened. This might seem like an odd statement – after all, of course there’s more sensitivity and protectiveness over East-versus-West differences, or lack of cultural understanding, or offensiveness towards a ‘foreign’ entity – be it a nation, a religion, a way of life, or something else. But this is kind of the point.

Hollywood itself is the biggest delinquent in the game when it comes to these kinds of issues. Everything tends to be westernised, and simplified, and glorified: sometimes all at once, and sometimes it depends on the situation. This isn’t an arbitrary decision either: it all comes down to the audience. A large audience will be given exactly what it wants so that the people keep coming back. If that happens then every dollar spent returns many more on a film’s release, and at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.

A good example is the market of foreign films. Subtitles aren’t necessarily the preferred viewing method when it comes to the average middle-aged, white, western viewer (sad but true), so the studios do away with them but cash in on the initial idea by remaking something which they know is virtually guaranteed to be a hit. 3D is very much the future in the eye of the industry boss who realises that it helps to guard against piracy and, at the same time, costs a significant amount more for the average viewer in a standard screen, meaning that the profit margins are again wider. But if the audience don’t take to it, then it won’t hang around. Hollywood – as an institute – is not stupid, hence why it’s still here. It plays the long game; always has, always will.

It’s curious then as to why Affleck is being attacked for the particular politics of Argo considering that the limited ammunition he has is very much directed towards the fickle and fake nature of the entertainment industry of L.A. The characters in the script of Argo lie to each other, announce that they’ll fit in with ease if they plan on doing no work and become a masked version of themselves, hence the moment of calmness and regret, almost, between Alan Arkin’s character and Ben Affleck’s as they speak slowly – not in the 100MPH motion that the rest of the script delivers, a la a typical Hollywood thriller – but instead with clarity, and with actual thought.

Argo is so much more than a typical Hollywood drama, though. Its politics are interesting and is one of the main reasons as to why it has a greater depth than not only similar films, but the other awards contenders too. I haven’t had time to mention the fast-paced thriller aspects, the political side of the game, the filmmaking aspects in the form of the camerawork, the writing and most of all the direction which gives it a uniquely satisfying genre flavour with a tone that shifts and yet remains constant throughout. But combine these with the satirical aspects that focus on Hollywood, almost like The Player, and you have a hell of a film.

So no matter what Mark Cousins says, or what Ben Affleck says, this is a film about Hollywood. It is a political thriller that’s worth debating and it is most certainly about second chances for Ben – hence where the Hollywood theme comes from, and on a very personal level – and whilst he’s no doubt grateful, this is also a therapeutic return to the place that gave us the rise and fall of Ben Affleck (part one). But with directorial turns initially in Gone Baby Gone, then The Town, and now Argo, act two couldn’t be much stronger…

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