Monday, October 15, 2012

"Argo" (2012)

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin
Written by Chris Terrio
Directed by Ben Affleck
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 120 Minutes

"Argo" is based on the incredible true story of six Americans who managed to escape the US embassy in Tehran as it was besieged by rioters in 1979.  The six took refuge in the nearby home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).  As the hostage crisis wears on, the "houseguests" continue to hide from the Iranians, but their situation is growing precarious.

CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a daring plan to rescue them by flying into Iran and posing as part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a new science fiction movie called "Argo."  The plan is preposterous, but Mendez manages to get the higher ups to sign off on it because it's "the best bad idea we've got."  To wit, Mendez flies to California and enlists the aid of John Chambers (John Goodman) an Oscar-winning Hollywood makeup artist.  Chambers helps Mendez construct an elaborate ruse to make "Argo" seem like a real film.

The two get a big-shot producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to put together their fake film.  Siegel begins casting the picture, setting up office space, doing all the things that real Hollywood movies do in pre-production.  With a script, storyboards, and fake credentials in place, Mendez must make his daring entry into Iran, coach the houseguests on their new identities and pray that their cover story is good enough to get them through the airport alive.

"Argo" is a fantastic film.  With it, Ben Affleck has got himself a hat trick and has earned a reputation as a fantastic filmmaker.  "Argo" doesn't feature any big special effects or large action sequences, nothing like that awesome Fenway shootout at the end of "The Town" but it is entirely engrossing from end to end.

What might be one of the most surprising elements of "Argo" is just how funny it is. Alan Arkin and John Goodman get big laughs as the two producers trying to put on this terrible fake sci-fi film.  But of course, though the production of it may be fake, the script for "Argo" actually exists, and there's a fantastic scene with Affleck and Arkin attempting to buy it with a low-ball bid.  Arkin's dry wit works wonders here, and the script hands him plenty of zingers.  Likewise, Goodman is clearly having a blast with his character, and gets a few good digs in about Hollywood studio mentality.  We're introduced to him as he's fixing the makeup on a man dressed as a minotaur who's claiming he can't act through his makeup.  Goodman replies, "If he could act, he wouldn't be playing a minotaur."

Bryan Cranston is also excellent as Mendez' CIA boss, Jack O'Donnell.  He's the one who pushes for Mendez's plan even after the plug is pulled while Mendez is still in Iran with the hostages, acting as a lightning rod to get the US State Department to pull its head out of its ass and take a risk to save some lives.  Victor Garber has a couple of good moments as the Canadian ambassador, but his screentime is limited, and there's not much thanks for what he did, which is unfortunate.  I would have loved a couple of good scenes explaining just why it is that Taylor took in these people and how he felt about hiding them in his home, risking everything, for nearly three months.

The script for "Argo" is a complex puzzle of pieces, all of which need to fit together properly in order for Mendez and the houseguests to get ouf of Iran in one piece.  There are a number of minor characters in several government agencies who all participate, and Affleck populates these roles with recognizable but not famous character actors like Zeljko Ivanek ("24"), Kyle Chandler ("Super 8," "Friday Night Lights"), and Titus Welliver ("The Town," "Sons of Anarchy").  What's fascinating is not just that these familiar faces fulfill the standard character actor role of being a familiar face for the audience to flesh out a minor role, but also that these men actually look much like their real-life counterparts.  The end credits of the film put up the actors next to pictures of the real people, and in a number of cases the resemblance is astonishing, especially for the six houseguests.

Those actors are also a few small, recognizable faces, like Clea DuVall ("The Faculty"), and a few others who have mostly done TV guestwork.  But they disappear into their roles, and are quite good.  You definitely care for them and want them to come out of it okay.  The film skips over most of their stay with the ambassador, jumping from the initial siege on the embassy to nearly three months later, but there are glimpses into what they've endured, having to hide in a small crawlspace and never go outside.

Also remarkable about "Argo" beyond its sharp script and excellent casting is that Affleck's talents as a director have expanded further in the technical realm.  "Argo" looks fantastic, and Affleck and his photography team went to great lengths to make the film look and feel authentic.  This is not some slick-looking modern picture drenched in teal and orange, which is so refreshing.  The colors are bold, but the film has a very natural look to it, along with a slight softness and a lot of film grain that makes it look every bit the period piece it is.  Aside from a couple of too-digital looking bits at the climax, "Argo" sports a very real look and feel to it, which heightens the suspense.

The detail of the production is also excellent.  Hairstyles and clothing and tons and tons of real news footage from 1979 and 1980 really help sell the period style of "Argo."  Footage of rioters storming the US embassy was recreated in intricate detail, as shown in the film's end credits.  It blows my mind. Although, if anything, I caught myself thinking that the reception on all those TVs was probably too good, especially in a scene where Mendez watches part of a "Planet of the Apes" movie with his son.  But that's just me being cynical.  Affleck has done just as good a job recreating the past here as Fincher did in his excellent "Zodiac" film.

While the film is based on a true story, Affleck admits that the third act takes some dramatic license to pump things up, which is good because it works extremely well.  The tension is palpable at the climax as the group attempts to board a Swissair flight out of Tehran and are nearly discovered.  You've never been so scared when someone is dialing a phone.  There's a few moments that threaten to devolve the film into standard suspense genre territory, as it seems a little strange that the plane isn't ordered to return to Tehran after being chased down the runway by police and soldiers, but ultimately "Argo" comes out the other end a huge success.

"Argo" is a sharply written, engrossing drama.  There's suspense and fantastic production value to lend it credence and weight.  Ben Affleck needs to continue directing movies, because I want to see what else he's got in him.  He's handled mystery, drama, action, comedy and suspense all in three movies.  I can't wait to see what he decides on next.