This year in cinematography produced some really interesting examples of storytelling. Of these, Argo, a Ben Affleck-directed feature film, received critical acclaim. While I enjoyed the film, I was also angered and disturbed by it, which presented me with a delicate problem – one that may shed some light onto just how polarized media has become.
To be fair, Argo is by no means a bad film, but it prompted me to think back to recent years, comparing it to films that indeed received a great deal of critical attention and recognition, yet ultimately exhibit what I consider, a relatively shallow perspective.
I am not sure where to start, but I do believe that it may have begun with M. Night Shyamalan.
Shyamalan’s shining debut in 1999 was The Sixth Sense, and while the filmmaker had his ups and downs since, he exhibited a rare and novel quality: he could produce a full length feature film based on a short story.
These were not epic stories with complex structures. Instead, they were 90 minute films that stripped the narrative to a new level of minimalism, often bearing a signature twist at the end, turning resolution into an a-ha moment, akin to that of television scripts, traditional mystery novels…or really, really short stories.
The art of turning a short story into a feature film is an enormously difficult task. Yet in recent years, we have seen a boom of these elegant silver screen vignettes.
What started with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan continued on with features such as The Village. Then in the recent years there came The King’s Speech, The Young Victoria, and now, there is Argo, as other filmmakers picked up on the fact that narratives can be minimized, focused on a relatively brief event without having to burrow into our protagonist’s life.
I tried to like Argo. After all, it is based on a true story that involved a covert CIA operation kept out of headlines for decades to come. This story was the kind that you would read as an amusing paragraph crammed in a side-column of a weekend newspaper.
Argo is about a crisis – a group of stranded US diplomats in a midst of Iranian revolution – and to get them out of Iran, they must pretend to be members of a sci-fi film crew.
I tried to convey what happens in the film to people.
“They are pretending to be members of the crew, and then they are really stressed at the airport. The aiport scene, it is very stressful, full of tension.”
“And then they get on the plane, and become instant celebrities at home. There is a note, you see, about how they even return to working for the foreign affairs department after the ordeal.”
Argo is undoubtedly shot, directed and cut beautifully.
Its’ cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, known for his work on Brokeback Mountain, has these marvelous angles and remarkable, luxurious, saturated colours, making this period piece a flawless one, reminiscent of Spielberg’s, or more accurately, Janusz Kaminski’s work on Munich.
The sets are marvelous. The costume design is great. The actors do a great job, and the increasing tension of this simplistic narrative is built masterfully.
But it is in the story that lies my discontent.
The characters are seen escaping the embassy out the back doors, while their colleagues are held at gun point.
Hiding out in the house of the Canadian ambassador, his wife, and a loyal housekeeper, they sit meekly around the table, surrounded by food and wine.
They are a little scared and a little stir-crazy, arguing amongst each other to keep their visibility to a minimum, even having to jump into an underground hiding room on at least one
They are not captive for a period of months, you see. Their experience surely does not compare to that of Anne Frank either. Just a few tense days that anyone that lived through a war, or had been close to a conflict zone, would have had personally experienced.
In fact, even if you were ever in a midst of a good storm, you would have had to sit it out, enduring a similar case of confinement, but possibly a less luxurious one, sans catering, good company and beverages.
They are also not alone. Most of the embassy workers evading capture by authorities happened to be couples.
Some married, some just involved with one another, their agony may seem intense at first, but quickly you pick up on the fact that these individuals had mutual support, love and encouragement.
Their colleagues on the other hand, are a shadowy, parallel presence in the narrative that receives little illumination throughout. They are held in captivity, and we occasionally catch glimpses of their torturous ordeal in prison, as they are led to their faux executions, bags over their heads, no shoes, dragged through moist, dark and cold chambers, their bodies contorted in anticipation of a gruesome death.
They, we learn, would endure such torture in sub-human conditions for over 300 days.
In contrast, the protagonists are merely very stressed, and provide for this relatively entertaining anecdote that represents the movie.
And that goes to the crux of my discontent.
The protagonists are essentially a representation of the potential audience members, composed of either those who still remember watching the reports on the Iranian revolution, or better yet, those who believe that a stressful airport experience amounts to a worthwhile story that should be turned into an Oscar-nominated film.
Every day we read about world events that resonate because of their immense impact on human lives. Every moment, across the world, there are individuals who suffer enormous losses, of their own lives, or that of their loved ones.
These stories of survival against all odds are genuine, hard, real.
Today I glance across the news page and I see Indian women beaten on the streets, after protesting against a system that fails to protect and prosecute rape. I see in Ireland anti-abortion laws struck after a death of a woman who miscarried. In Syria today, there was an airstrike that killed dozens of people standing in a bread line, one reminiscent of a similar event during the Balkan wars in 1990s. At the same time, the famed Pope’s butler may or may not face a life in prison for releasing secrets and documents, while the reports reveal a skyrocketing number of Americans who face unemployment, hunger, homelessness… Wherever I look, I see real stories of people who survive more than that of a stressful airport experience.
One has to ask then: why? Why choose to depict this group of relatively empowered elites in a cushy, catered setting, who may have faced a potential danger, one ultimately narrowly avoided?
Why focus on their story instead of millions of other stories I consider far more worthy of telling?
After all, Argo was ultimately not a comedy. As for drama, this competent movie feels like a stinging disregard for issues that plague us, an irrelevant moment in time easily forgotten, undermining other, more important stories.
It exemplifies a failure, not necessarily of the filmmakers, but a larger, systemic one, that embraces these stories, while undermining far more touching, epic, humane ones that majority of humanity is wrestling with.
Argo essentially exemplifies an acceptable social narrative, one bereft of examination in terms of its’ socio-political or historical context. We never really learn the facts surrounding the revolution, or the political polarities that it surrounds. Instead we focus on an comforting, apolitical, ahistorical version of events, which allows us to simply ignore the rest.
And that is the problem with Argo.