Showing posts with label Argo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Argo. Show all posts

17 October 2018

Based on an Untrue Movie


by Robert Lopresti

When the movie American Animals  came to town this summer it was pretty much foreordained that I would see it.  The subject is attempted theft of rare books from a college library, a subject with which I am not unfamiliar.  In fact, the flick was based on an event I had already blogged briefly about.

To summarize,  four college students decided to get rich by stealing some valuable books from the Special Collections room at the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky.  Their planning technique consisted mostly of getting drunk/stoned and watching heist movies.  The resulting event  was a disaster and about the only positive things you can say about it are: 1) The victims did not suffer lasting physical damage, 2) No books were destroyed, and 3) All four of the fools went to prison.

The movie is worth seeing but I want to bring up one specific complaint about it.  It begins by pompously announcing that: this isn't based on a true story; it is a true story.

And, of course, it ain't.

The gimmick that makes American Animals unique is that while the main part of the story is carried out by actors, it also contains interviews with the actual culprits, and sometimes even shows the same scene more than once, to reflect the version of whoever is talking.  It's clever and interesting, but like I said, you are not seeing a true story.

I have complained before about a better movie that played fast and loose with the facts.  So call me a serial grumbler.

The important things that American Animals got wrong, as far as I am concerned, involved (surprise!) librarians.  The burglars in the movie showed much more concern about harming the rare books librarian than their real life counterparts did.  And the "true story" completely erased the library director who put herself in harm's way to try to stop the theft.  Maybe she didn't give the producers permission to include her?  I don't know but leaving her out was not the truth.

A few more questions and I am not the first person to ask them: If instead of white suburban guys the crooks had been African-American urbanites would this movie have been made?  If so would the script have tried so hard to show them as Good Boys Gone Wrong?  Hell, would they have even survived their arrests?

Unanswerable, of course.

By coincidence I just rewatched another movie based on a true story, one I liked better than American Animals or Argo.  The Informant! concerns Mark Whitacre who is apparently the highest executive to ever voluntarily turn whistleblower about his company's wrong deeds.  In the 1990s Whitacre was a biochemist and high-paid executive for ADM, one of the world's largest food processors.

And he told an FBI agent that his company was involved in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy to fix the prices for corn syrup, which finds its way into everything. As one agent says in amazement "Every American is a victim of corporate crime before he finishes breakfast."  So Whitacre agrees to wear a wire.

This sounds like we are building up to a dark brooding movie with heart-pounding suspense.  That's not what we get.  The flick is full of bright colors and Illinois sunshine and most of the time Whitacre seems to be having a marvelous time doing his spy gig.  At one point he shows his secret recorder to a virtual stranger and explains that he is Secret Agent Double-oh-fourteen "because I'm twice as smart as James Bond!'

Whitacre often provides a running narration on events, which is not surprising.  But his narrative almost never relates to what's going on.  As he is about to plot price-fixing with fellow executives he tells us: "I think I have nice hands.  They're probably my favorite part of my body..."

By now you may have the idea that Whitacre was not playing with a full corn silo.  In fact, as near as I can tell the place where the movie may depart most from the facts is in choosing to show us whether he was crazy from the start, or cracked under pressure.  (As his lawyer points out, FBI agents going undercover get training on coping with a double life.  All Whitacre got was a recorder and a firm handshake.)

I have simplified the story considerably.  The complications are what makes it so fascinating.  I loved watching Scott Bakula and Joel McHale playing FBI agents looking on in stunned horror as shoe after shoe after shoe drops on their case.

One person who seems to have had a wonderful time with this movie is composer Marvin Hamlisch.  In keeping with the spirit of the film, his music usually has nothing to do with the plot of the film.  When a character is taking a lie detector test the accompanying music is -- a square dance?

In closing, let me just wish that if they make a film of your life it has a happy ending.

30 March 2013

From FARGO to ARGO


by John M. Floyd

Question: What does it take for a movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture? If I were doing the selecting, the main requirement--maybe the only requirement--would be entertainment value. But that is of course not enough; any of us who follow movies know that Best Picture contenders should also have at least some of what we might call "literary" merit. In other words, they should be illuminating as well as entertaining. (Sometimes they apparently only have to be illuminating, period--but I won't go down that road today.)

A requirement for actually winning Best Picture is usually that the film has already, several minutes earlier in the ceremony, also captured the Oscar for Best Director. The two awards often go hand in hand, and only four times--including the Oscar ceremony held earlier this year--has a film won Best Picture when it was not even nominated for Best Director.

And the winner is . . .

What I'm leading up to here is that the other night I finally watched, for the first time, the movie Argo, and saw what all the fuss was about. And let me say right now, I thought it deserved its Best Picture Oscar. In my opinion, Ben Affleck should also have won for Best Director. I have no idea why he wasn't even nominated, but--again--that's a different matter.

Another question. Assuming some of you would agree with me that Argo was a good film, what was it that made it so good? There are many possible answers here: the script, the performances, the cinematography--all of those were extremely well done. But I think its strongest point was its level of suspense. (Which, to me, translates into "entertainment.")

How to do a howdunit

Argo is not a mystery/crime story. It's a story about a plot to rescue a group of embassy staff members from a foreign country, under the very nose of a hostile government, by pretending that they are members of a film crew planning to shoot a fictitious movie. That premise itself was fascinating: Hollywood working undercover with the CIA? But what made the story great was the tension, the anticipation, the fear that these people might be discovered and captured. Failure in this case would have meant certain death--probably death by torture--and there were many, many different ways that what they were attempting could fail. The final twenty minutes of the movie involved some of the best armrest-gripping, sphincter-tightening suspense I've seen in a long time.

Part of this was the old "ticking clock" technique. At one point the escapees were at the airport and their plane was about to leave, and if it left without them they would die. They realized it, and we as viewers realized it. If the ticket agent at the counter couldn't find the reservations that the Washington folks had supposedly made for the group, the hero and all the people he was trying to rescue would die. If the telephone didn't get answered quickly enough in Hollywood when the Iranian security officer phoned the fake number to check the escapees' fake story, they would all die. If any of those being questioned about their phony identities/jobs/backgrounds didn't respond correctly and promptly and convincingly, they would all die.

Adding to this feeling of tension was the fact that we had come to know and understand and sympathize with the characters--especially those in the CIA who were risking everything to try to bring the good guys home. And the familiar setting didn't hurt. Few of us have been to Iran, but all of us have been in airports at one time or another, wondering if we'd make our plane.

Shoptalk

Another plus was that the writing was excellent. Here are a few (paraphrased) examples of the dialogue:

CIA guy: There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.
Official: You don't have a better bad idea than this?
CIA boss: This is the best bad idea we have, sir.

Movie guy: So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot--
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: --without actually doing anything?
CIA guy: Yeah.
Movie guy: You'll fit right in.

CIA guy: Can you teach somebody to be a director in a day?
Movie guy: You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.

CIA boss: If you want applause, you should've joined the circus.
CIA employee: I thought I did.

Movie guy: Okay, you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million people, all of whom chant "Death to America" all day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you're going to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you're going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world.
CIA guy: Past about a hundred militia at the airport. That's right.
Movie guy: Look, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.

True Lies

One thing surprised me a bit. I was afraid that since this story was based on real events, and since most of the viewers already knew (via either media hype or a good memory) what would eventually happen… that could be a disadvantage. It turned out it wasn't. Prior knowledge of the outcome didn't hurt Titanic, Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, or The Day of the Jackal--and it didn't hurt Argo either. What kept it interesting was the storytelling process itself. Even so, it's no small feat for moviemakers to keep an audience properly worried for more than two hours about the ending when the audience already knows the ending.

My point, if there is one to be made, is that we mystery/suspense writers can learn a lot from movies like this. What did the writer and director do to make us care deeply about the characters? How did they make us want so badly for the protagonist to succeed? What did they do to make us so concerned that he might not? How did they manage to tell a humdinger of a suspense story without making it an "action" story?

Afflectations

I can't help mentioning here that for years it seemed that the two Good Will Hunting guys had gone off in separate directions: Matt Damon was making all the right career decisions (Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ocean's Eleven, The Bourne Identity) and Ben Affleck was making all the wrong ones (Reindeer Games, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl). Then, somewhere along the way, Affleck started doing things like Hollywoodland and Gone Baby Gone and State of Play and The Town. Now, he's widely recognized as one of the best directors and actors around.

In closing, I would rank this movie right up there with other Best Picture "suspense" winners and nominees like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, The Departed, The Green Mile, and The Silence of the Lambs.

My advice: Argo see it.

17 October 2012

Spy Lie


by Robert Lopresti

I just saw the movie Argo and I feel like I should say something about it because I wrote about it several years before it was made.  Well, not exactly.  But I wrote a piece on Criminal Brief called A Real-Life Genuine Phony Hollywood Spy Story,which was about the bizarre true event that served as a basis for Argo.  If you aren't familiar with it here's the one-sentence synopsis: during the Iranian hostage crisis the CIA got six hostages out by pretending they were a Canadian film crew.

So here's my review: it's a good movie.  You'll like it.  But you'll like it better if you don't read my earlier piece first, because the more you know about what really happened the more likely you are to be annoyed by the parts the movie gins up.  Apparently a spy sneaking into an insane theocracy to slip out six civilians, knowing that a single mistake could get them all beheaded was not suspenseful enough for Hollywood without a few added gimmicks.  Sigh.

I blame it on Irving Thalberg.  I believe he was the producer in the 1930s who dictated that every movie had to end with a 99 yard dash for a touchdown.  Apparently Ben Affleck and friends decided that the ball wasn't quite far enough back for the climax so they had to libel the Carter administration (who apparently did not look quite bad enough in real life) and bring in a lot of machine guns.  Plus they invented an airline  pilot so oblivious to the world around him that he made those two clowns who flew a state or two past their destination a few years ago look like paragons of alertness.

Honestly what annoyed me most was not the lies they put in so much as the facts they left out to make room (or because they didn't fit the story they were telling).  Here are a few true incidents that did not make the movie (which remember, is both funny and suspenseful):
  • The forgers put the wrong date on some of the passports, indicating that the carriers were travelers from the future. 
  • The Canadian cabinet had to meet in secret to authorize false passports.  Then the authorities refused one to the CIA agent, because he had not been included in the vote.
  • When the hero visited the Iranian consulate, he left his portfolio in the taxi cab.
  • The CIA agents’ map of Tehran led them to the Swedish embassy instead of the Canadian one. 
  • On the morning of the actual escape, our hero slept through his alarm. 
Wouldn't you think some of those items were worth including?  And then there was the equally suspenseful escape of the Canadian embassy staff which had to be perfectly timed, but didn't fit in with the phony scene the producers put in Argo.  Honestly, I liked the movie, but the more I think about it the more irritated I get.

And let me say that one reason I liked is that any flick which gives a juicy comic part to Alan Arkin does a service for mankind.  (And the fact that Arkin's character is a composite didn't bother me at all..)

Here's the irony, by the way.  I was at a songwriting group this week and  a woman had written a song about a real person.  I told her "you have to decide whether you're serving the person or the song."  In other words, she was cleaving too closely to the truth.  So call me a hypocrite, I guess.

Tangential episode: Speaking of the CIA, more than a decade ago I was at a dinner party and was seated near the new boyfriend of a woman I know.  I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was an engineer.  Well, practically everyone in my wife's family is an engineer so I asked what kind.  "Systems engineer," he said, and put so much unspeakable boredom into those two words that I changed the subject.

Later my friend told me that the guy was actually an analyst for the CIA.  And after he found out that I am a government documents librarian he was kind enough to send me a few books published by the CIA for my collection - nothing classified, I assure you.

Back when the CIA used to send a lot of paper documents to federal depository libraries like mine (now they don't because "everything is on the web," which it isn't but don't get me started on that), we used to receive pocket atlases of major cities in communist countries.  These  map books were highly prized because they were much more accurate and complete than maps of Peking and Moscow that you could actually buy there.  But nowhere on the entire publication would you find the publisher's name.  For some reason, people didn't wander around those cities carrying something that said CIA on it.  Go figure.

And go see the movie.  Just remember one thing that the film makes a point about: spies and movie moguls never let the truth get in the way of a good story.