John Goodman and Alan Arkin in Argo


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 April


John McCarthy kidnapped, 1986

On this day in 1986, the British journalist John McCarthy was taken hostage in Lebanon. Like most of the hostages taken during the so-called Lebanon hostage crisis, which continued from 1982 to 1992, McCarthy was chosen not because of any particular political affiliation but because of the country he came from and because, as a journalist, he was easy to target. Aged 29 when it happened, he was working for WTN news when he was grabbed by Islamic Jihad, and spent the next five and a half years locked up. Every time the location of his incarceration was changed, McCarthy would be wrapped in parcel tape, head to toe, like some mummy, and slid into drawers below a lorry. In the ten year crisis 96 people were kidnapped and treated similarly to McCarthy. Some died, some escaped or were rescued, McCarthy spent much of his time sharing a cell with fellow hostage Brian Keenan, who had been taken six days before him. Keenan was released in August 1990, a year before McCarthy.




Argo (2012, dir: Ben Affleck)

At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the CIA came up with a brilliant mad plan – to try and get the hostages out by using a fake movie as a cover. Movie people are rare beasts, they work to their own inscrutable logic, they operate at odd times of day, go to places other people don’t go. Ergo (if not argo) they are the ideal cover for a team of “extractors”. Argo tells that story, only lightly fictionalised, breaking the events down into three distinct fields of action. Back in Hollywood we have John Goodman and Alan Arkin, a pair of old Hollywood salts being seconded as the front for the operation and taking it all very seriously – “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” says Arkin’s Lester Siegel, a wiseass cigar-chomper of the old school whose Star Wars-alike film, Argo, is the stealth cloak under which the CIA will operate. Which takes us to the extractors themselves, led by Ben Affleck, edging his way into the “quiet dignity” area that George Clooney has a virtual lock on (Clooney is the film’s producer), hirsute in a 1970s way that’s also very now, playing the guy who is going to get the hostages out by disguising them as location scouts for the imaginary film. And then there’s the hostages, fearful, and the other occupants of the embassy – some of whom look like good guys but are bad guys, and vice versa.
How things play out is what the film is about, of course, whether they will or won’t succeed. But this three-way structure – fun at home, fear abroad and Affleck as the fixer go-between – is why it works so entertainingly. We get jokes, we get thrills and we get plenty of that procedural stuff that movies do so well.
There are other things going on too. For a start there’s the rewriting of history – President Carter’s big failure turned into something less ignominious. There’s the fact that this is a movie about movie-making, particularly Hollywood movie-making, when Hollywood and by extension the US was still the pre-eminent force.
There is intelligence too, from Affleck the director, dropping in shots of women in burkhas eating Kentucky Fried Chicken to remind us that the world isn’t black and white, we’re all more similar than we sometimes let on, but that situations can develop where black and white are really the only two choices on the table. Where Affleck really shows his mettle (and betrays that he’s obviously been watching the Bourne films) is in his choreographing of the actual operation to get the hostages out, which is constructed like a heist movie. Piling tension on tension and pulling so many whoops-nearlys, his film nearly tips over into parody. And over the end credits Affleck flashes up photos of the people actually involved – how closely Affleck and co resemble them. What a tense, polished thriller this is.



Why Watch?


  • For Alan Arkin – again stealing the movie
  • For the support turns by Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy
  • Because truth is stranger than fiction
  • Because Affleck’s third movie as a director makes it three out of three


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Argo – at Amazon





4 March 2013-03-04

Silje Reinåmo in Thale

DVDs/Blu-rays out in the UK this week



Thale (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

This tense fantasy thriller about a Norwegian police clean-up team finding a mythical creature in a hidden cellar is this year’s Troll Hunter. Unexpected, refreshing, atmospheric and tightly plotted, it’s beautifully shot with vivid colours and unusual deep-focus photography, oh the wonders of digital. Even if you hate this sort of thing, it’s worth watching, and if you do hate this sort of thing you’ll be happy to hear it’s only a short 75 minutes or so. I found some comments from its director, Aleksander Nordaas, over on Pirate Bay underneath the magnet and torrent links to Thale, pointing out to the freebooters who are downloading his movie that he poured his heart, soul and all his money into this film. Not chiding them, not busting their balls, just asking nicely if they would also consider spending a bit of coin through the legal channels. How amazingly even-tempered he is, as well as talented. I hope some of them did – in spite of Thale’s unfathomably low IMDB rating, Nordaas really deserves to make another film.

Argo (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Ben Affleck’s tense, polished and accomplished entertainment about a CIA man co-opting Tinseltown into the rescue of hostages in Iran is, most remarkably, based on a true story. There are many reasons why Hollywood gave it the Best Picture Oscar, not least because it proclaims a) the superiority of American democracy over Iranian ayatollahs b) it harks back to a time when the US was still undoubtedly number one c) it turns a defeat (the loss of Iran to the mullahs, the US’s man, the Shah, being kicked out) into a victory and d) it also harks back to when Hollywood was still number one. It’s a Clooney-esque film (he produced) – political, slick, wise, adult and entertaining, and director Affleck shows his mettle particularly as the tension racks up towards the end, wheeling out barriers to escape of every conceivable sort, until it became almost funny. Though for me the best bit was watching Alan Arkin, as one of those gimlet-eyed, cigar-chomping, old Hollywood producers shouting “Argo fuck yourself”. A line everyone is so pleased with they use it again and again. Great stuff.

The Sapphires (Entertainment One, cert PG, DVD)

The audience for this sort of film has probably dried up and blown away. Which is a pity because it’s got romance, music and emotion – it’s a toe-tapping feelgood musical, in other words, with a story arc that’s straight out of The Commitments, and featuring a charismatic performance by Chris O’Dowd, playing the shambling boozer in 1960s Australia who becomes the manager of an aborigine girl group, next stop Vietnam. It’s a true story too.

Battle of Warsaw (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Poland’s first 3D movie is an intensely patriotic affair set in the aftermath of the First World War when the newly formed Soviet Union thought it would gobble up its next-door neighbour. Directed by Jerzy Hoffman, a veteran who brings so much 1960s flavour that you’d swear Julie Christie was about to turn up, it’s a bloody, gutsy film with a familiar twin-track plot – a love story set against the backdrop of bloodshed – and has a pair of proper starry leads in Borys Szyc and Natasza Urbanska. And as soon as it starts we know it’s only a matter of time before she abandons her life as a Weimar-style cabaret singer, signs up as a nurse and heads for a battlefront finale where… no spoilers here. No one seems to particularly like this film, but I did – yes, it’s film-making almost as an exercise in semaphore, but it has touches of the brutal absurdity of The Good Soldier Schwejk and has a lot of time for the working of sheer dumb luck. The 3D? Well, it’s unnecessary but it’s only used in the battle scenes, which come at roughly ten minute intervals.

Hope Springs (Momentum, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

I doubt you’ve ever wanted to see Meryl Streep rubbing Tommy Lee Jones’s groin (over his trousers, please) or maybe I’m wrong and you also fantasise about Meryl pleasuring herself under the bed covers in the night. In which case this wholly uncool but undoubtedly well done comedy about an old married couple (no, not old old, this being Hollywood) putting the spark back into their marriage – thanks to relationship/sex counselling from a dialled-down Steve Carell – is for you. If not, there’s always Pornhub.

Gambit (Momentum, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Having made a lash-up of remaking The Ladykillers, the Coen brothers (they write but don’t direct) do similar injury to a 1960s caper movie that wasn’t very good first time round. Then it starred Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. Now it stars Cameron Diaz, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman and poor Tom Courtenay. It’s a relentlessly unfunny misconception about the selling of a phoney Monet painting which takes things that were just about still funny in the 1960s – the sound of a man’s trousers ripping, or a chambermaid burping – no, they weren’t funny then either, you’re right, and adds some Pink Panther-style physical comedy. Which would probably be OK if Firth weren’t doing it. But he’s no worse than Diaz’s Texas accent. In fact only Alan Rickman gets out alive. But then he always does. My gambit – avoid.



 © Steve Morrissey 2013