Monday, October 22, 2012

Argo Movie Review

Just about everyone knows or remembers that in 1979 Iranian revolutionaries seized control of the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for the next 444 days, after which all of them went home alive. The story was on the minds of nearly everyone in the country. The incident figured heavily in the sense of national pride when the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia and won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. My six year old brother was so disturbed by the story that he scratched Iran off a beautiful glass globe that belonged to my great grandfather.

The part I never knew, and what many people apparently never knew, was that six Americans escaped out the back door and hid at the home of the Canadian ambassador while the CIA worked out scenarios for exfiltrating them. Even less known than that was the method eventually used and the cover provided to bring them home safely. The real story was declassified in 1997 and has now been turned into a movie called Argo and directed by Ben Affleck. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay based on a 2007 “Wired” article by Joshuah Bearman and on a book by the CIA operative Tony Mendez, who orchestrated the escape. Apollo 13 has been playing recently on AMC. What I remembered most about that movie was how great Ron Howard was at building suspense through a story whose outcome we already knew. Those three astronauts survived, but we feel the tension along with them because they don’t know what their futures hold. That’s how I felt during much of Argo.

The movie begins with a brief history of Iran and the United States’ controversial involvement with overthrowing the democratically elected government and support of the Shah. A voiceover narration is accompanied by what I presume was mostly, if not all, stock news footage and photographs. Affleck then jumps directly into the day of the embassy takeover with crowds gathered outside the gate chanting and growing more agitated while it’s almost business as usual inside the embassy: Iranians seeking visas await their turn for an interview; clerks file papers; others look nervously out the window and remark that the bullet-proof glass has never been tested. Then the gate is breached and it’s a rat race to burn and shred every document in the building. This opening is full of tension, it’s fast-paced and I didn’t notice until it was finished that I had barely taken a breath. Then suddenly it’s “69 days later.” As wonderfully frantic as this opening is, there are plot turns, coincidences and near-misses in the final climax that seemed to me like they must have been created to ratchet up the suspense in the final moments. I did feel that Affleck pushed a little too hard and he started to lose me, but for the most part he deserves great accolades.

Affleck also stars in the movie as Mendez, a specialist in “exfils” who devised the plan which involved setting up a phony movie studio with his friend, Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, to back a Canadian production of a B science fiction movie. Their entrance to Iran is predicated on the notion that they want to shoot in Tehran and that the six embassy workers are part of the film crew. They procure cover identities and Canadian passports for the six and hope that airport security won’t find it too odd that they can’t locate the immigration papers that are turned in when you enter the country.

To begin with, this is an incredible story. Affleck has been saying in his press tour that if this weren’t a true story, you would never buy it. I can’t say I disagree. It’s the kind of far-fetched idea that Hollywood screenwriters employ to jack up the suspense. That said, it’s not always enough to place the phrase “based on a true story” at the front of your film to make it good or even believable, but as a director Affleck has demonstrated yet again what powerful control he has on the tension levels of his films. His films are also wonderfully edited, keeping the stories concise and to the point even when there are multiple characters to follow.

A spy thriller can quickly get out of hand in the editing room if too much emphasis is placed on developing every individual character. It may seem a disservice to the six Americans who lived under lockdown in Tehran fearing for their lives that we spend so little time with them, but the story is not about them. It’s about the steps taken to save them. As it is, none of them really stand out with the possible exception of Bob Anders and only because he’s the oldest, most senior in authority, and played by Tate Donovan, the most recognizable face among them.

Affleck’s acting chops are just about adequate to meet the minimal challenge of playing Mendez. The role offers him little to do except appear stern and decisive. He might have avoided some controversy by casting a Hispanic actor (Michael Pena comes to mind) in the role, but I wonder if producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov wanted someone more famous. John Goodman is solid as Chambers, who helped Mendez orchestrate the Hollywood end of things. As Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell, Bryan Cranston occasionally has to channel the fierceness of Walter White, and Alan Arkin is a pleasure to watch as the movie producer they hire to producer their fake movie. Seriously, who better to deliver the line, “Argo f--- yourself,” than Arkin?

Helping maintain a sense of time, place and verisimilitude, Affleck and production designer Sharon Seymour opted to give the film a genuine 1970s look. The costumes and the hairstyles all struck me as being on point. Something about it all felt a lot like All the President’s Men. Then I learned that Affleck allegedly studied that film’s camera movements and lighting techniques to help give his film a 1970s look. He even blew up the film frames to make the movie look grainier. I can’t help but thinking that last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its reliance on dialogue and situations rather than action and guns to build suspense has had some very positive influence on the filmmaking decisions made by Affleck and his team. This is top notch filmmaking and shows once again that Affleck’s true calling is to be behind the camera.

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