Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: "Argo" by David Pretty

Just when I'm on the verge of becoming completely and totally jaded, a movie like Argo comes along and knees me right in the cubes.  It's not often that a film manages to accelerate my heart rate, but with its tense establishment, impeccable plotting and taut direction, Argo had me on pins and needles for its entire run time.

Based on real-life events surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis, the film begins with a valuable preamble about America's record of interference in that country's turbulent history.  Angered by American foreign policy and  its protectionist stance over the deposed Shah, Islamic militants stormed the U.S. embassy and held fifty-two people hostage from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981.  During the siege, six staffers managed to steal away and seek refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Fearful of being captured and executed as spies, the six refugees were forced to hide there for nearly eighty days.  Their only hope of rescue was via a covert extraction, but given the socio-political climate in Iran at the time, most of the traditional cover stories were impractical.  When CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) finds himself watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on T.V. with his estranged son he hits upon an idea that's so crazy it just might work.  His plan: to pose as a movie producer scouting locations for a sci-fi flick, rendezvous with the six expatriates, disguise them as members of a Canadian film crew and then smuggle them out of the country.

Nominally encouraged by his superior Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez travels to Hollywood where special effects wizard John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) help him complete the illusion.  After they purchase the script for a cheesy Star Wars rip-off named Argo, the trio begin an earnest promotional blitz and set up a fraudulent movie studio as a front.  The minute details of this elaborate fiction are all well in place long before Mendez wings into Tehran.   

Despite their best efforts, this "best worst idea" begins to unravel as the Iranians piece together shredded personnel files proving that six embassy employees have gone AWOL.  The tension continues to ratchet up after the fugitives are surreptitiously photographed while keeping up appearances during an obligatory "location scout" at a crowded bazaar.  As the six captives struggle to absorb their cover identities and the Iranians inexorably piece together the evidence against them, the entire operation is suddenly jeopardized when it comes under scrutiny at the highest levels of government.

Argo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that truth is consistently stranger then fiction.  If the producers hadn't flashed the "based on true events" blurb at the start of the film I probably would have called bullshit on the entire story.  Now granted, you'd be a fool to swallow all the events as depicted here wholesale (for example, Canada's role in the event is severely diminished) but as a tension-fueled construct, Argo has few rivals.  I'm pretty sure that the mission cancellation, the last-minute film pitch, the unanswered call to the fake production office, and the tarmac chase never happened, but it certainly makes for an effective and riveting experience.

Pretty much everyone can relate to heightened feelings of anxiety and paranoia when they go through airport security, even at the best of times.  But can you imagine trying to do this under completely false pretenses? Would you be able to recall the encyclopedic details of your fake identity for people who would merrily string you up like a piñata if you or any of your five companions fuck up?  If nothing else, Argo manages to parlay these universal fears into a climax of nigh-unbearable proportions.

Major props go out to triple threat Ben Affleck for producing, directing and starring in this taut little thriller.  I can't help but wonder if Affleck just got sick and tired of getting offered crap roles and decided to make his own.  This initiative has translated into a win for movie-goers as well since he's already given us Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town thus far.  Making the best of self-employment, his performance in Argo is understated and actually quite good.  Arguably its bit too hang-dog and one-note, but all that really matters is that it serves the tone of the film perfectly.

It's Affleck's directorial chops that really impress.  Assisted by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the assault on the US Embassy is chaotic and harrowing, the scenes inside the safe house are discordant and claustrophobic and the final reel of the film is a pitch-perfect engine of apprehension and terror.  I really can't remember a recent political thriller that was such a visceral experience.  In fact, I think Affleck should probably call da po-po since my boy was robbed of a Best Director Oscar nod. 

The film's physical reality also deserves plaudits.  Costume designer Jacqueline West manages to evoke the "style" of the time without lapsing into distracting parody.  Production designer Sharon Seymour, art directors Peter Borck and Deniz Göktürk and set decorator Jan Pascale have faithfully recreated a late Seventies / early Eighties version of American and Iran.  Their take on CIA headquarters, downtown Tehran, Ken Taylor's residence and Mehrabad International Airport are all flawless to this unknowing eye.

The production team also got a lot of mileage out of the "movie-within-a-movie" concept, creating convincing posters, storyboards, Variety ads and even a live reading of the fake "Argo" script with actors in over-the- top costumes.  Although the Hollywood sign had long since been refurbished before the events depicted in the film, the sun-bleached sequences in California still feel authentic.  Finally Star Wars nerd Affleck earns extra brownie points for dressing his fictional son's bedroom up with vintage toys from "a galaxy far, far away."           

In addition to Affleck's measured performance, the movie is rife with great actors doing what they do best.  Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is stellar as Tony's tightly-wound supervisor Jack O'Donnell.  John Goodman lends a jovial and comedic air to the film as real-life makeup maestro John Chambers.  And although the role itself is a fictional construct, Alan Arkin shines as a prickly, no-nonsense film producer named Lester Siegel.

I should also mention the collective efforts of the "hideaways".  Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé and Rory Cochrane all do a great job standing in for the viewer and engendering a tremendous amount of emotional involvement.  Kyle Chandler, in a thankless role as Tony's main foil Hamilton Jordan, also deserves a nod for being particularly odious.  Finally, the always-great Victor Garber acquits himself quite nicely with his cool and dignified turn as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.        

I highly recommend that you check out Argo during this Oscar season.  If anything, the act of watching the film is as far from a passive experience as you can imagine.

           Tilt: up.

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