Tonight was the opening night of Viennale, also called the Vienna International Film Festival. From now until November 7, the city will play host to premiers and screenings of all kinds of films—features, shorts, documentaries, comedies, dramas—from all around the world. There are a variety of events, from a retrospective on the work of Austrian director Fritz Lang to a gala in honor of Michael Caine, where he’ll actually be speaking (and while I almost certainly won’t get in, you can bet I’ll be hoping he’ll quote his amazing line at the end of The Man Who Would Be King).
I went with a group of friends from the DA who had managed to score tickets for tonight’s screening of the new Ben Affleck movie, Argo. I had been looking forward to this movie for a while: I was familiar with the story that it was based on, and while I hadn’t seen any of Ben Affleck’s directorial work, I’d heard enough good things to feel excited about it. Plus, it has John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston (Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad) as Affleck’s boss at the CIA. What’s not to love?
The movie did not disappoint. Immediately, the opening voiceover provides some relatively non-intrusive exposition for the audience, using film storyboards to depict a Cliff-Notes version of 20thcentury Iranian history: Mossadegh and the US-engineered 1952 coup, the re-installation of Reza Pahlavi and the brutality of his secret police, the SAVAK, and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile and the ultimate fall of the monarchy. Once we leave the storyboards behind and enter the film, there is a pervasive, insistent atmosphere of dread. The strain of the six escaped embassy workers is palpable, punctuated by vivid reminders of the stakes: a man is pulled from his home and shot in the street outside the Canadian embassy. We see another man hanging from a construction crane in the middle of the city.
The world-building continues Stateside, where CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) gets brought in to consult on the extraction of the six embassy workers. It’s in the details, like the yellow ribbons tied to every lamppost in support of the hostages, or the science fiction figurines that adorn Mendez’s son’s bedroom—still a recent fad, as strange as it can seem to someone who wasn’t there. Affleck gives a great performance here, balancing Mendez’s rough determination to do his job with the loving, distant father without falling prey to “asshole with a heart of gold” clichés. It helps that he has amazing chemistry with the supporting cast, especially Cranston and Goodman, who plays the movie makeup artist who is instrumental in developing the entire “fake film” endeavor.
The idea about the importance of stories wove throughout the movie. There’s the story of Iran, the embassy workers’ cover stories—which, as Mendez points out, are the only thing that will keep them from getting a gun to the head—and of course power of a good story to bind together people who have almost nothing in common, like Argo, their fake film. There’s even a great tie-in to a scene from Return of the Jedi (which didn’t come out until 1983), when C3PO relates the story of the Rebels’ adventures to the Ewoks of Endor. Through it all, the tension never slackens, even as the pace shifts from still to slithering to breakneck action. I don’t want to give anything away, but to give you a hint: I knew how the story ended, and I still found myself whispering Hail Marys under my breath during the critical scene.
After this, I’m incredibly excited for the rest of Viennale. I’ll be sticking to mostly English-language films, because the subtitles would be in German and I would like to actually know what is going on. Most promising: indie hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea (because this time, I won’t have to leave early to catch the last bus to my part of town), and hopefully the Michael Caine/Sean Connery film I referenced earlier, The Man Who Would Be King. I’ll also see if I can catch the screening of Alien, so I can finally tell my stepdad I’ve seen it (who knows, maybe it would lead to a really cool Halloween costume?) What do you think? Have you seen Argo? Any suggestions for films I should try and see at Viennale?