How do you keep an audience on the edge of their seats when everyone knows how the story ends? It’s quite a trick that Ben Affleck pulls of with Argo, and not something you’ll see too often. The outstanding example, to my mind, was The Day of the Jackal, but this one isn’t too far off that standard.
It was our weekly cheapie-Wednesday movie outing, and it’s a great deal, by the way. The Odeon cinema has a flat charge of a fiver for everyone , and it works. Last week, we ended up in the front row, because there was no room anywhere else, and tonight we’d have been in the same predicament if we hadn’t arrived twenty minutes early. I suppose it makes a lot of sense to have the cinema full of people paying five euros, instead of a quarter full of people paying ten.
Apart from anything else, there’s something nice about sharing a movie with a full house, but I’m drifting off topic.
How’s it done? Everyone knows about the rescue of the US diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Teheran, so how do you maintain the tension when everyone knows what happened? That’s what I wanted to know.
You put the audience inside the people’s heads, said Bullet, and I think he’s probably right. He can be a perspicacious little toerag when he wants to be.
Affleck manages the trick very neatly indeed, so that by the time the film is reaching its climax, you’re right there with them, feeling shifty as a revolutionary guard examines your fake passport.
There’s one other way to maintain the tension, of course, and I should have mentioned this. It only works for people who don’t read newspapers, watch the news on TV, read history or talk about current events. In other words, half the population.
For those people, I’ve made a decision, though I don’t know why. No spoilers.
Not that it matters. Even if you know exactly what happened in Teheran, you’ll be nailed to your seat because this film is a real page-turner, if you’ll forgive the mixture of metaphors. It’s a curiously old-fashioned movie, relying on directorial craft, timing and clever editing to maintain tension, along with a drum-driven soundtrack that cranks up your nerves into a ball of quivering terror.
The film quality is grainy throughout, a technique sometimes over-used, as it was in the Private Ryan battle scenes, but here the touch is light. Not too much grain. Just enough to tell your subconscious that you’re in the eighties. Everyone smokes and there are many embarrassing moustaches, but Affleck doesn’t hammer the point too hard. Light suggestion is enough to get you there.
By the same token, he doesn’t pander to American jingoism in telling this story. Modern Iran sprang from the overthrow of a vile dictatorship, installed by the British and the Americans when they overthrew the democratically-elected leader Mossadeqh in 1953 at the insistence of the oil companies.
For a quarter of a century, the ridiculous Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi crushed his people under the boots of the brutal Savak secret police until finally, in 1979, he had to flee when a popular uprising toppled him. Unfortunately, the uprising was led by religious lunatics like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who turned out to be even worse than the preening coxcomb they replaced, and that madness continues to the present day.
I suppose the next movie we can look forward to is a war thriller about the joint British-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941.
The opening scenes of Affleck’s movie provide a newbie’s guide to these events, and in themselves might serve to mitigate some of the more extreme cartoon-style western views of Iran, but that’s hardly likely to save it from the reception in Iran that other movies have received, including 300 and The Wrestler. That’s theocracies for you. Always on the lookout for enemy action
Argo is an old-school thriller with crackling funny dialogue, terror, pathos and a little tragedy if you’re sharp enough to spot it. If this is what Ben Affleck is making as a young man, I can’t wait for him to grow old.
Actually, do you know what? I’m going to do a spoiler after all: the Jackal didn’t shoot deGaulle.