Category Archives: Iran

Movie Review: Argo

Ben Affleck pulled off the impossible and made a movie about the making of a movie that isn’t cheeky or ironic. Then again, it’s hard to be overly ironic when the movie you’re making is fake and you’re dealing with a hostage crisis.

“Argo” plays perfectly like a classic thriller: it’s smart, suspenseful, and fun. “Argo” is both an entertaining thriller and a disturbing document of a very bad time in history.

“Argo” is equal parts reenactment, documentary footage, and artistic license. It starts off with a nice refresher  on the past 60 years of Iranian history. In just about a minute, it makes much more sense out of what happened to that country than CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News ever could combined. It goes up to 1979, the year in which the Shah was overthrown and the Iranian Revolution began. Director Ben Affleck gives us a full fledged reenactment of the Iranians breaking into the US Embassy in Tehran. This scene would have felt overlong, if it wasn’t so important to the rest of the story, and directed with nail-biting intensity.

Actually, “Argo” is not about the hostages in the Embassy but rather a select few that nobody knew even escaped. A group of Americans hid out in the Canadian Embassy. The Canadians didn’t quite bother the Iranians as much as the Americans did, as the Canadians never seem to bother anyone, as they are the greatest country ever to exist.*

But I digress. The CIA needs a way to safely get the Americans out of the Canadian Embassy and back to America. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is on it. Tony is good at his job, and, like almost any government agent on film, he just wants to get home and see his son. You’ll hear more about this later in the review.

Tony and his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) go through every option and can’t find a logical way to sneak the Americans out of Iran. As O’Donnell, Cranston is much more subdued than I’m used to seeing him. But then again, anyone in government who’s most concerned with following orders isn’t going to chew up the scenery. As the clock ticks, no idea seems to work. That is, until Tony comes up with the craziest idea ever: shoot a fake movie in Iran, and sneak an entire fake crew out of the most dangerous country in the world.

“Argo” is a heist film in which the big heist involves the making of a movie. This is the kind of story that can make any film buff go crazy. When rescuing the Canadian hostages, Tony tells them that they all must assume the roles of certain members of a film crew. They must learn and memorize their backstories for when they are questioned at the airport. They are essentially memorizing characters and becoming a part of a lie. While making a fake movie, they are essentially acting one out in real life. And we, of course, are seeing that movie be acted out in real time.

To make this fake movie come true, Tony goes to Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who then brings him to legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who utters a line of dialogue that has already become classic). They bring Tony a script for “Argo,” a B-grade sci-fi film that could be filmed perfectly in the Middle East. They have their cover. It is too bad that the “Argo” within “Argo” never got mad. I’d really like to see this tale of overthrowing a king on a distant planet. The story of the sci-fi “Argo” actually sounds alarmingly similar to what was happening in Tehran during that time. Get on it, Affleck.

“Argo” marks Affleck’s third time behind the camera. With every feature, he gets better and better as a director. He directs “Argo” like a confident, old pro, and not just a young director still searching for his voice. Behind the camera, Affleck is someone who is incredibly well versed in both movies and the art of filmmaking. As he also showed with “The Town,” Affleck has a talent for strictly following genre conventions yet also making them fresh and exciting. He has conquered the chase scene. Towards the end of “Argo,” there is one chase that totally puts any chase in “The Town” to shame. Some of the final chase in “Argo” might be fictionalized, but Affleck knows that part of showing history on film is bending the truth a little bit. After all, even in a story as exciting as this one, facts can be boring.

Sometimes, the cinematic conventions that “Argo” follows work to its advantage, and other times not. While I understand that Affleck just wanted a strong back story for Tony, I would not have minded if they just completely removed everything about his estranged family. It didn’t make Tony any deeper or more complicated as character. All I wanted to see was Tony at work, and how his job effected him. “All the President’s Men” didn’t need to show personal relationships in order to flesh out Woodward and Bernstein. In a movie about the workplace, showing someone being good at their job can often be enough to bring out character.

I am not against character development. However, I am against character development that turns the character into a prototype rather than a human. I can site a more recent example, actually also about the CIA, in the show “Homeland.” The most important details about the CIA Operative main character are how her mind functions and how that effects her job. Tony’s relationship with his son didn’t effect his job. His job effected his relationship with his son. This was mentioned several times, but never explored deep enough. There was one possible ending nestled in “Argo” that would have been a little darker, yet absolutely perfect. Instead, the ending they went with pushes a little too hard to tie things together nicely. Hard-boiled thrillers should never end with a perfectly tied little bow on them.

But maybe I am being a little tough here. After all, Tony’s relationship with his son is partly forged on a love for movies. If it wasn’t for his son watching “Battle of the Planet of the Apes,” Tony might never have thought of his crazy rescue idea. There is something wonderful about the nature of cinema that I think “Argo” showed flawlessly: movies can connect two estranged people, or two people from completely different cultures, in a way that most other art forms can’t. The idea of a story can cross a threshold even if two people don’t even speak the same language. “Argo,” in simplest form, is a love letter to filmmaking. Pay very close attention to the graininess of every shot. That’s on purpose. This could be one of the last times you see a movie that’s actually shot on film.

*Note: I am not Canadian, and they are not the greatest country ever. However, I am a big fan of their country.

Movie Review: A Seperation

Who would have thought that a slow burning film in Farsi would merit a second viewing? “A Separation,” the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, is also one of the best films to come out of 2011. It merits such interest and praise not only for the country for which it came from, but because it is the kind of challenging fair that does not get make it to theaters enough.

I do not know how “A Separation” got by in Iran, a country bound by such heavy censorship, but that makes this filmmaking effort all the more bold. Yet, it makes no sweeping political statements, it is just about the hardships of life as it is.

“A Separation” deals with a conflict that any American, or let alone any citizen of the world, can relate to: keeping a family together. It begins in a court of divorce, and the rest of the movie will take place in and out of various courts of law. Nader (Peymon Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) look to divorce. Nader was never abusive, and they never really fell out of love. Simin wants to leave Iran and look for a better life, and Nader wants to stay and take care of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimers. His father is mostly bedridden, and breaths only through an oxygen tank. All he wants is the morning paper, and if he doesn’t get it, he will even dodge oncoming traffic for it.

The family is part of an established upper class. There is little association with politics and any social or political views the movie projects are done so subtlety. Maybe that is because writer and director Asghar Farhadi wanted to separate himself from the regime, or because there is something closed off and sheltered about the country’s upper class. However, education seems to be a prime concern amongst them. The education of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is of utmost importance, and she is also one of the factors that tears the marriage apart.

While Simin is gone, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father. Razieh is of a lower class and despite her deep devotion in helping Nader’s father, she is treated poorly. Nader even accuses her of stealing from him. This is a woman that is so honest and faithful that at one point, she won’t even tell a lie that will benefit her, because she will be swearing an oath on the Quran.

In an instant, “A Separation” transforms from a family drama of staggering devastation to a he said-she said Iranian version of “Rashomon.” After some unfortunate circumstances that lad Nader to physically push Razieh out of his apartment, her subsequent tumble leads to Nader’s trial for killing an unborn child. Depending on how you look at it, he may be innocent, guilty, or something else in between.

“A Separation” is shot in such a simple, beautifully uneven style that it resembles a documentary. Farhadi is the fly on the wall, capturing every event while being as objective as possible. There is also almost a complete absence of a musical score. In a film, music usually tells you how to feel in a certain scene. The case involved has so many sides that using music to tell the audience how to feel would be a major cop out. “A Separation” is not about cop outs. This movie shows a lot, including every mundane detail of a day. And yes, there is even a loving closeup of an overstuffed suitcase being zipped up.

This is all fitting, as “A Separation” never attempts to glorify nor vilify the director’s homeland. It doesn’t provide the brightest vision though, either. If “Slumdog Millionaire” was about filling Mumbai with pulsating energy, then “A Separation” fills Tehran with urban pessimism. I would relate this most to the Chilean movie from 2009 “The Maid” about a maid who loses her grip on reality after finding out the rich family she has served for years might replace her. “A Separation” has less of the painful things-fall-apart feeling of that film, but it certainly shares a similar mood dealing with class warfare.

“A Separation” is a portrait of a country that always seems to be in turmoil. Just like Nader’s marriage, it is constantly caught in the middle and splitting apart. In one scene, Nader admonishes his daughter for speaking in Arabic as opposed to Farsi. In another scene, one of Termeh’s textbooks recalls a time in the country’s history when the only two classes that existed were “royalty” (which she then changes to “upper class”) and “everyone else.” Everyone seems to go either one way or another and in that light, it is hard to choose because as the main incident of the movie shows, life has more than two right answers.

When “A Separation” concludes, there is no sigh of relief, only the discomfort of uncertainty. That is what makes the whole thing so unsettling, and ultimately so rewarding. There is some blatant separation symbolism at the film’s end, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. There is a key decision made at the end, and it is fitting that we never know the outcome. Either way, one character we like will be hurt, and the other won’t be, and vice versa. This is one of the most stirringly objective narratives I’ve ever seen on film.

However, being so objective is hard. Every person involved in the trial of “A Separation” has the best intentions, and they all live their lives according to the same religion. Yet in the end, it is only our own personal feelings that can provide us with the moral compass for this story. I hope to see more movies like this, that challenge us to choose our emotional response, rather than feeding it all to us.