Should You Watch It: Argo and Skyfall

November 12, 2012 3:39 pm 0 comments

Two movies, two tall tasks: one explains an international act of espionage backed by Hollywood; the other attempts to round James Bond into a real person. How did they turn out?

Matt Ford

It’s an exciting time to be a moviegoer.

Here’s why: movies like Skyfall are rebooting the action genre, which of course includes the James Bond series. Bond movies will no longer be formulaic flicks with pithy pick-up lines, vapid women and happy endings; the new Bond is flawed, injured, cynical, self-loathing, and even — occasionally — out-matched.

Bond is one thing, but it will not be contending for Oscars next March. (Although co-star Javier Bardem might.) The movie it topped at the box office this weekend — Ben Affleck’s Argo — most certainly will.

It’s hard to explain what’s so great about Argo until you see it. In brief, Argo is brilliantly paced — the plot covers a lot of ground quickly — well-acted, unpredictable, occasionally hilarious, and confidently understated. After the movie was over, I quickly hoisted it into the “Best Movies I’ve Ever Watched” category. I know — bold.

So, on one hand, we have an action movie trying to be more complex; on the other, a spy movie trying to keep it simple.

Does it work for both films?

You can read a Skyfall review anywhere, I know that. (Grantland’s review sums it up, perhaps a little pedantically.)

Here’s the short version: Yes, you should see Skyfall. Yes, Sam Mendes makes the latest Bond movie feel like a real movie — dynamic characters, beautiful sets, great use of color. Yes, Javier Bardem portrays the best Bond villain since Christopher Walken‘s Max Zorin in A View To A Kill (more on Bardem shortly).

There’s something about Skyfall, though, that feels a little bit more captivating than its Bond predecessors. A few examples (with spoilers abound):

Desmond Llewlyn played "Q" from 1963 -- 1999; in Skyfall, the tech whiz was updated (Courtesy Telegraph Newspaper)

  • Q returns! But instead of as an old man who looks like he can’t use an iPhone, Q looks more like Mark Zuckerberg. And the gadgets Q gives Bond are no longer cute and fancy — they’re functional and simple, like — well — an iPhone.
  • Moneypenny returns! But as a dynamic, sexy (black!) woman whose sexually tense relationship with Bond reignites on the basis of mutual affection and experience in the field, rather than Bond simply needing a work-flirt.
  • Raoul Silva is a captivating villain. You know how in Dark Knight, you felt like you were watching a brand-new type of villain when the Joker came on screen? That Joker had no rules. His motivation, as Alfred explained, was cloudy.

The movie villains of 2012 — Batman’s Joker and Bond’s Silva, for instance — are just more fucked up, more dangerous, more ruthless than their movie ancestors. Perhaps cinema is reflecting the world we live in here in 2012. Think about it. Modern enemies, as M says, “live in the shadows,” whereas even the Soviets had rules.

Anyway, Silva is a lunatic who will stop at nothing to destroy M after she gave him up when he was an Mi6 agent (sounds a little like Travelyan from Goldeneye).

There is a formula for creating modern antagonists. Unpredictability + clear, strong motivation + no morals = perfect movie villan. Not to mention, Bardem continues to scare us as a little-too-credible ultra-villan. Is he the new Walken — Hollywood’s alpha villan?

Skyfall, like the other Daniel Craig Bond films, tries to explain the legendary character’s motivations and, in turn, shed light on his weaknesses. That makes sense; we’re a more sophisticated audience now — we expect more from our heroes.

(By the way, did anyone notice how Bond — a rich orphan whose life revolves around fighting evil – has a past similar to Bruce Wayne‘s? I don’t think it’s a coincidence how similar Bond/Wayne and Joker/Silva are.)

Here’s to James Bond for figuring it out before it’s too late.

Before I begin talking about Argo, do me a favor.

If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading, find some local times, and go watch it. This article will be here when you get back (unless Grantland finally gets around to sending that cease and desist letter).

Argo is an unbelievable story based on a real-life CIA mission, which commissioned a fake movie to scout locations in Iran during Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. A movie never was made — the real goal was recovering six American hostages.

A great story, but a complex one. Imagine telling it succinctly. Here was the writing task ahead of screenwriter Chris Terrio:

Explain the Iranian hostage crisis to the audience. Show the Iranians take over the US Embassy. Make the audience care about the hostages. Introduce, then have the CIA credibly approve a ridiculous mission. Establish Hollywood backers. Craft Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez to be a believable and compelling lead.

Oh yeah, and then have Mendez return six hostages back to the USA.

All in two hours.

What’s so great about Argo is the creative team realized exactly how incredible the story is. There isn’t one extra scene, one extra line of dialogue, one distracting special effect.

I credit a lot of that to Affleck, the director. Look, I used to think of Ben Affleck the same way you did. Take it away, Family Guy:

But Affleck directs this movie pitch-perfectly. See, when actors direct movies, they tend not to focus on fancy cinematography or special effects. They don’t shoot a million takes and a million angles. They focus on the actors — tight shots, continuous shots, no frills.

Actor-directors are Hollywood’s version of a so-called “players’ coach.” In comparison, a director like David Fincher might be Tom Coughlin.

(What I mean about Fincher: You know that scene at the beginning of The Social Network where Rooney Mara dumps Jesse Eisenberg? Yeah, that took 99 takes. NINETY-NINE!!!)

You can tell what Affleck was going for — let the actors and writers tell the story. His job as director (and star): don’t get in the way.

In fact, Affleck subtly digs on himself — and directors like Fincher — in a great scene with John Goodman’s character, an “I’ve-seen-it-all” Hollywood makeup artist. Goodman suggests one of the American hostages should be the faux-film’s director.

Affleck says, “Can you teach someone to direct overnight?”

Goodman quickly retorts to Affleck, “You could teach a monkey to direct overnight.”

Thus, Affleck’s effort is humbly excellent. Like Skyfall, Argo has a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish.

While Skyfall is worth seeing in theaters because of its novelty — how often does a really good James Bond movie come out? — Argo will last the test of time as a truly great movie.

You can wait a few weeks to see Skyfall — don’t sit in the second row like I did on opening Saturday in NYC. While everyone piles in line to see Bond, go see Argo. You won’t be disappointed.

Matt Ford is the Editor in Chief of Hire Me Grantland. Read his review of Seven Psychopaths here. Read his Halloween-themed NFL mid-season awards here. Or bring it on home.

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