As Susan Sontag noted, "Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future."
Ben Affleck's Argo and Lorraine Levy's The Other Son, both centered in the Middle East, put to use the past to comment on the present and, in a sense, predict the future, with seesawing views of optimism.
Affleck, who turned 40 this past August, has apparently channeled his aging testosterone away from tabloid-worthy lasciviousness and toward life-affirming artistry. After Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now Argo, there is no longer any doubt that the star of Chasing Amy and the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Good Will Hunting is now permanently ensconced among the A-list of American directors.
Argo, a recreation of a loony, covert CIA plot to rescue six Americans from Iran during the Carter era, is a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat-grabbing thriller that works even if you already know the ending. Yes, our citizens are saved from guaranteed death sentences, but the ingenious "how" is what's so absorbing here. With a tension right out of the best of Hitchcock, Affleck directs Chris Terrio's masterful screenplay with a restraint that never overplays the comic elements or overstates the obvious -- and with a velocity that seldom allows you to catch a breath.
Moreover, with the brutal honesty of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, Argo opens with an indictment of both America and Britain for their oil-greediness and colonial sensibilities. By these nations manufacturing a coup d'etat in 1953 and installing the Shah to govern, the foundation was laid for what later turned into the 1979 hostage crisis and the basis for this startling adventure.
With scenes that could have been downloaded from Twitter, Argo seems to be implying the United States will keep getting itself out of scrapes in the Middle East as fast it creates them, but without absorbing any lessons from its successes or failures.
The Other Son's action takes place in 2009, but its seeds were planted in the course of the Gulf War, during the shelling of Haifa by Iraqi Scud missiles. In the midst of the bombardment, two boys were born, one Israeli and one Palestinian. As luck would have it, their identities were accidentally switched, and the misadventure is not discovered until 18 years later when Joseph (Jules Sitruk), an aspiring musician, takes his physical for the mandatory Israeli army enlistment. His mother, Orith (Emanuelle Devos), a French-born physician, while checking out the results, notices his blood type is an impossibility. She and her spouse, an Israeli-born army commander, are both A-. Joseph's is A+.
Slowly, the truth unfurls for two Middle-Eastern, angry, yet puzzled young men. The Muslim-raised Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), who lives on the West Bank with his anti-Israeli family, is the "real Jew" studying to be a physician like his biological mom. And the kosher Joseph sings like his biological Muslim dad whom he has never met. "I'll have to swap my kippur for a suicide bomb," he quips.
In a moment of anguish, Joseph asks his rabbi, "Am I Jewish?" "Your birth mother isn't Jewish, so you aren't," is the response, while Yacine, who was not bar mitzvahed, as noted, is.
An unbelievable situation becomes remarkably tangible here and oh so pertinent. The two changelings and their families must immediately cope with shifting religious identities, family connections, and political realities, Beautifully acted by the entire cast, and astutely directed by French helmer Lorraine Levy from a near-perfect screenplay by Nathalie Saugeon, Levy, and Noam Fitoussi, there can be no argument that The Other Son is one of the ten best films of the year, right up there with Argo.
Here are two engrossing dramas that burst onto the screens with a painful immediacy. Both are exciting, illuminative, and not totally without hope. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "The Arts in New York City," "American Jewish Theater," and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.