Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Argo (****)

Directed by Ben Affleck


There is a very large (if somewhat transparent) part of Ben Affleck's latest movie Argo that is a love song to cinema. Or at least, to the power of cinema. The power that moving pictures draped across a seemingly giant silver screen can have on the mind of the common man - or perhaps an American hostage or an Iranian rebel. You tell a man you've worked in the Peace Corps, and he'll probably shake your hand and tell you he admires you. You tell a man you've worked in the movies, and he'll talk your ear off and remember your name for at least a week. This is what Affleck truly understands and what makes the movie work best. This is a movie about "the movies", even if it seems like anything but.

In 1979, when the Grand Ayatollah led his revolutionaries to overthrow US-Europe appointed government, the rebels were able to successfully command the American Embassy, where they captured 52 Americans and held them for 444 days. This is a well-known piece of quasi-contemporary American history, but what isn't as known is the story of the six Americans who were able to escape the Embassy before the rebels got to them. They hopped from place to place, attempting to find sanctuary, getting turned away until they came across the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Vincent Garber), who housed them for over ten weeks.

The American Central Intelligence Agency know that once the Iranian rebels discover that there are six Americans missing from their hostage pool, it is only a matter of time before they find them and make very public, very violent examples of them. They call in Tony Mendez (Affleck), who specializes in hostage rescue, to hear their ideas to save the six Americans. Their master plan? Bicycles. Give them bikes, give them maps, and have them bike 300 miles to the Turkish border. Both Tony and his CIA contact Jack (Bryan Cranston) are not crazy with what the State department has in mind, and Tony shoots down their better ideas about getting them out as American educators (since there are no longer schools in Iran). Despite their reservations, Tony and Jack cannot think of a better idea.

That night, having a phone conversation with his son, he turns the TV to a showing of The Planet of the Apes. It's then that he realizes: he could get them out as a film crew. He presents it to the State Department, he flies into Iran as an associate producer on a new film scouting exotic locations. He gives each of the six a cover dealing with the movie, one's the director, one's the screenwriter, etc. And they fly back into the States as a Canadian film crew. The State Department approves this plan, begrudgingly, and Mendez forms a fake movie around a real script named "Argo", and with the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and catty film producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin), the fake movie creates a life of its own. It has a script, it has buzz, it has a real production company producing it, and it even has its own office on the studio lot. Now, all that's left is convincing the six hostages to play along.

There are moments within Argo that are so tense that it challenges the best of Hitchcock or Peckinpah or Scorsese. When confronting the increasingly abrasive and unflinchingly militant forces looking to find them, it's hard not to feel major anxiety. Which is saying something considering that history has told us what the end is already. The understandably skeptical hostages don't really come into major play in the film until the second half. This is the moment when the film switches from standard but entertaining Hollywood fair, into excruciatingly suspenseful thriller, and a lot of that comes from these characters. What is perhaps Affleck's best directorial decision, Affleck the actor tones down his own acting work to a whisper-y kind of performance that allows all of the more colorful ones to fill in the spaces.

Chris Terrio's screenplay (based on an article by Joshuah Bearman) expertly creates a realistic arc for each character. Even characters as small as the Canadian ambassador's housekeeper - in very limited screenplay - is able to complete her full journey by the end of the film. But the script's best balancing act is how it seamlessly goes from the subtle camp, Hollywood satire in its first hour (with Arkin and Goodman providing quality laughs) to the excellent, Alan Pakula-style political drama of the second half, all the while feeling like a very cohesive story and never seeming like the balancing act it obviously is. It works mostly because of the film's most consistent piece, Tony Mendez, stands throughout, never skipping a beat or changing his own style, working as a mile marker for the film's odyssey.

Argo is very easily Ben Affleck's best film. It harkens back to the gritty thrillers of the 1970's, a la All The President's Men, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man, which capitalized upon Hitchcock's wrong man fantasies and combined them with Peckinpah's abrasive tension to make a perfect mix of commercialism and edgy thriller. Even the outfits and hairdo's bring this time to light. But it's story, heavily entrenched in recent American history while still heavily dramatized, keeps the film's relevance high on the totem pole, now especially with new troubles rumbling between the US and Iran coming right around the corner. Affleck's knowledge of these films and that film era makes Argo what it is: a political thriller with true brains, great performances and directed with visual recklessness veiling a stunning attention to detail - but still very aware of its own cinematic mortality.

I've already mentioned the value of Affleck not playing the hero card and not letting his performance get hammy, which would have guided the movie into heavy-handed, American back-patting. While Goodman and Arkin provide the film's comic relief, Cranston (building a solid film resume the last few years after being beyond excellent on television) plays Jack O'Donnell with great, weighty sternness that never finds itself being too serious. As the six hostages, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochran, and Christopher Denham all fill their characters with enough heart, anxiety, and frustration to complete the character arc in a short amount of time. Terrio's script does an excellent job of giving each one an individual moment that separates them, and does not just keep them as a faceless group.

The story of Argo was classified and totally unknown to the public until it was declassified by Bill Clinton in the late 90's. Even today, it seems like a pretty stunning display of two nations (US and Canada) working together to save lives. For years, it was thought that Canada alone was the savior of the six Americans, and Tony Mendez's efforts were left under the rug. That is, until now, where he is immortalized in cinema. Which Affleck states in this movie is very important. There is a scene in the middle of the film's most tense moment, where two very militant Iranian guards standing between Mendez, the hostages and the plane home. The "film crew" pulls out some storyboards from the fake "Argo" to prove their legitimacy. As they leave the room, Tony tells them, "Keep it, it's a gift", and the loving look those guards give those storyboards - that's the power of cinema. Which, in the end, is what Argo really is about. In the end.

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