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Entries in Political Thriller (3)

Friday
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5

Friday
Nov052010

Fair Game

Politics are a funny thing. Those who are passionate about government will argue policy until they have lost their voices. But let’s face it. People are stubborn. You could place mounds and mounds of evidence supporting your side in front of your opponent and it wouldn’t change their mind because everybody always thinks they are right. It’s a natural type of narcissism with which we are all born. I could type out countless instances where an otherwise innocent discussion has led to disbelief because of the ignorance of the people I’m talking to, whose simplistic mindset has caused them to disregard the facts on a range of topics. The funny thing is that those people would say they could do the same for me. It’s with this in mind that I begin this review of Fair Game. For those who disagree with the political stance of the movie (and who are less likely to give it a fair chance), there’s not much here you'll enjoy. But for all of my compatriots who represent themselves with the logo of the donkey, you’re going to find this movie mighty interesting.

The movie is based on the true story of Valerie Plame, a now ex-CIA covert agent who was outed by members of the Bush administration (namely Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney) to push their own agenda in support of the impending Iraq war, which effectively ended her career and placed her in the public scrutiny, damaging her reputation and endangering her life.

While it will be easy for conservatives to dismiss Fair Game for being merely another “liberal propaganda” film, the fact of the matter is that the evidence is there. There were undoubtedly some artistic liberties taken with the story, but this movie is based on fact and you need look no further than Google to confirm that. The CIA, who was studying the possible threat of nuclear weapons in post 9/11 Iraq, found little reason to believe that the country was a threat. Plame and her husband Joseph, played by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, respectively, were two of the people studying that possibility and argued against an invasion, but the White House went forward with one anyway. When Joseph saw the blatant misappropriation of the facts in Bush’s State of the Union address, he did something about it and wrote a damning piece for the New York Times, which set off a maddening chain of events. It was the speculation, not proof, of WMD’s in Iraq that took us to war and Plame unwittingly played a part in it.

What Bush, or rather his cohorts, did was use the population’s fear after the tragedy of 9/11 to justify an invasion of Iraq, taking raw data and purporting them into so called “facts.” This effect can be seen clearly now. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and there was no correlation between that country and 9/11, a fact even Dick Cheney admitted on Fox News in 2009, though the delusion still rages on. One brilliant, but maddening scene midway through the movie shows how easily the population was duped into believing the falsity. As Plame and her husband sit around the dining room table with their friends prior to landing in hot water, they listen as those around them echo the backwards speeches they heard on the news from Cheney. While Joseph and Valerie know the truth, their friends have become puppets to the aggrandizing effect of the lies.

While this may sound more like a political rant than a movie review, all of this matters if you are to find entertainment in it. If you find what I’ve written here disagreeable, you probably stopped reading a long time ago, but if you’ve been shaking your head in approving satisfaction, Fair Game will hook you like no other. It’s a finely tuned political drama with top notch performances and if you aren’t pissed off by the end of it, you’re probably associating yourself with the wrong party.

Fair Game receives 4.5/5

Friday
Feb262010

The Ghost Writer

It would be easy to start this review off with a summary of the troubles director Roman Polanski has faced over the years, condemning him for his actions, yet praising his cinematic work, but forget about all of that. The real question is: can this man still make a movie? Polanski, of Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist fame, returns with The Ghost Writer, a political thriller bursting with intrigue and political themes that eventually gets sidetracked by its muddled tone, bad humor and been-there-done-that final twist.

In case you're unaware, a ghost writer is a professional journalist who interviews somebody and writes their books for them. For instance, Bill Clinton's memoirs weren't necessarily written by him, but rather by another person who took what he said and turned it into prose. In the movie, Ewan McGregor plays one of these men, known only as the Ghost, and he is invited to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan, after his previous ghost writer was found washed up on shore. For a hefty fee of $250,000, the Ghost agrees to take the job and is quickly invited to live in Lang's house along with his wife, Ruth, played by Olivia Williams. While he is there, allegations of war crimes pop up on the news and the Ghost quickly realizes that there is more to this man's life than meets the eye.

Hot off the heels of Scorsese's umpteenth masterpiece Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer feels like a number of movies mishmashed into one. What should have been an airtight political thriller becomes too oversaturated with goofy humor and chase scenes in the latter half that sometimes make the proceedings feel more like National Treasure than All the President's Men. This journalist all of a sudden becomes an action bound, conspiracy unraveler who figures things out in a split second that the FBI wouldn't for months.

That's not to say I dislike humor and think all serious movies should be completely so, but the jokes in the film seem too self-knowing to really work in this context. At one point in the movie, the former Prime Minister's wife makes a joke about texting. I'm sorry, I wasn't aware this was a teen comedy. Later, the Ghost hops on a bike and his rear wheel sinks into the wet terrain he's traveling on, impeding his movement. This comes at a moment in the movie where he is finally starting to piece together what is happening and is heading off to the beach where the last ghost writer's body was found. I need not explain why that joke is out of place.

My main beef with the movie, however, comes not from its poor use of humor or its sagging back half brought on by a spike in the action, but rather from its piling on of foreboding. The tension doesn't always flow naturally as it should in a political thriller. More than a few lines of dialogue eerily forewarn of the Ghost's impending danger, like one where a character tells him not to turn left in his car or he "might never be heard from again." While this could be fine alone, this is not an isolated incident and moments like this occur throughout the movie. I never felt like I should care based on what I was seeing onscreen, but rather from the constant reminder that something bad was going to happen being shoved down my throat.

Nevertheless, The Ghost Writer raises some interesting themes of power, struggle and war crimes and relates them back to America, exploring our motives and questioning who really pulls the strings, but the provocative conversation that should have occurred on my car ride home became too focused on the glaring flaws to spark any real interest. Despite a solid recommendation, I find myself disappointed with The Ghost Writer, a film that seemed destined for greatness, but ends up a throwaway thriller with minor thrills and little else.

The Ghost Writer receives 3/5