Monday, October 15, 2012
ARGO Is a Riveting Real-Life Thriller
- Ben Affleck has come a long way. After reinventing himself with gritty, Boston-based dramas Gone Baby, Gone and The Town, Affleck has now taken the next step towards becoming not just a legitimate filmmaker, but a great one. His latest, ARGO, is a fantastic film. It's a gripping thriller that's also funny, and even educational. This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction real life tales. But the interesting thing with the story of Argo is that it isn't just a "can you believe this really happened" sort of narrative. There's some fascinating political context here, recent history that still very much informs where we're at today with Iran and the Middle East region. Argo is an intriguing look at one of the major foreign policy challenges of the Carter administration, but it's also a rip-roaring spy story. The cast here is top-of-the-line. And again, Affleck makes it all sing. Despite its true-life trappings, ARGO zips along with the urgency and sheer entertainment value of a classic, 70's-era, big-screen thriller. This is one of the finest films of the year so far.
Argo's story is the kind of thing that you'd imagine could only be dreamed up for the movies. But this story - declassified by President Clinton in 1997 - is all too real. In 1980, Iranian revolutionaries took over the US Embassy in Tehran, holding all of the workers there hostage for a prolonged period that extended for months, as President Cater attempted to work out a solution that would result in minimal loss of life. But during the initial Iranian raid on the embassy, six American diplomats escaped the building, and eventually found refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. He kept them hidden in his home, even as the Iranians desperately searched for them. The US needed a plan to extract them from Iran, but had to figure out a way to keep the identities of the six diplomats hidden. Enter Tony Mendez, a CIA "exfiltration" expert, who specializes in out-of-the-box escape plans. Mendez devises a plan to get the Six out of Iran by having them pose as a film crew. Mendez reaches out to contacts in Hollywood, including a major producer, and the special f/x guy behind the Planet of the Apes films. They get a hold of an unproduced sci-fi screenplay called Argo, and go to every effort to make it seem like this movie - a cheesy Star Wars ripoff - is actually going to get made. Eventually, Mendez, posing as the film's producer, goes to Iran to "location scout," picking up the Six on the way and briefing them on their new, assumed identities. All the while, the Iranians are increasingly hot on their trail.
Part of what makes the film so fun is how Affleck-as-Mendez must weave between the worlds of international espionage and Hollywood. At the CIA, he's answerable to Bryan Cranston's exasperated Jack O'Donnell and O'Donnell's even more world-weary superiors. In Hollywood, he works with old-school producer Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin) and veteran makeup and f/x guy John Chambers (John Goodman). In their own way, these guys are as cagey and hardened as the higher-ups at the CIA - and the movie illustrates how the movie business can be as much about rumors, info leaks, false statements, and insider secrets as the CIA. At the same time, it's funny to see how the movies really do serve as America's most beloved export. Whereas other covers might have raised more Iranian eyebrows, the thought of a big Star Wars-esque movie shot in Iran never fails to impress even the most American-hating Iranians.
Now, from some of the description above, you can probably tell ... the cast of ARGO is phenomenal. Arkin and Goodman are always great, always scene stealers - and the same holds true here. They bring some needed levity to the film, and Arkin in particular just kills it with some of his quips. What I like though is that there is some real dimension to these characters. Sure, Arkin and Goodman play Hollywood old-hands, but you also see a gleem in their eyes as they realize they get to use their talents to serve their country in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, Cranston gets one of his meatiest film roles to date since breaking out on Breaking Bad. Mostly, he plays the part of the by-the-book good soldier, but when he has to go out on a limb to support Affleck, we get to see Cranston really let loose. As for Affleck himself ... he's quite good here. It's a somewhat understated role, but Affleck does a great job of giving the part of Mendez some nuance. The film doesn't dwell, for example, on Mendez's strained relationship with his ex-wife and young son - but what bits we do get shade Mendez's character and his motivations throughout the film. Otherwise, the cast is just filled, top-to-bottom, with fantastic players. Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan, and many others all do solid work. There are cameos from the ever-reliable likes of Richard Kind and Titus Welliver. Suffice it to say, a huge part of what makes the film so successful is the cast just playing off of each other, and lending an old-school sort of feel to the film. It's an all-star cast, but no one is really competing for top-billing. Everyone chips in and makes the most of their screentime.
What's more, the film does a great job of giving us all sorts of interesting details of the CIA's unusual mission. We see the storyboards that were created to help sell the fake film (drawn by no less than Jack Kirby - the co-creator of The X-Men, the Hulk, etc. - himself!). We see how an ad for the film was taken out in Variety, and how a poster was hung up on Siegal's office wall for posterity. We see how the diplomats were explained away to the Canadian Ambassador's Iranian maid as being houseguests - but we wonder if she might suspect something. We also get some insight into the diplomats themselves. They too are fully-formed characters - each with a backstory that makes watching their own debates - on whether to trust Mendez, and on whether to go along with his escape plan - all the more riveting. Affleck skillfully covers a lot of ground here, zipping from Washington to Los Angeles to Iran. He keeps things moving at a nice clip, but he gives us all the details that flesh out the story, that make you realize all of the meticulous planning that went into this caper.
Affleck perfectly captures the vibe of the late 70's / early 80's. Not just in terms of the period details, which are spot-on, but in the way the movie itself almost feels like some lost classic of the era. The packing, the acting, the sense of intrigue and humming intensity - it brings to mind classic thrillers like All The President's Men. Still, Affleck isn't afraid to bring some of the bombast of The Town and other modern action flicks to the movie. There are some epic scenes in this one - from the initial raid on the US Embassy, which is absolutely breathtaking - to the nail-biting finale in which the six diplomats attempt their ultimate escape. Meanwhile, little touches - like Jimmy Carter giving a sort of spoken epilogue prior to the end credits, or side-by-side photos of the principle actors next to their real-life counterparts, provide a nice sense of context to the film.
What we have here is one of the year's most entertaining, well-acted, and sharpest dramas - a film that seems to perfectly encapsulate a certain era, even as it feels uber-relevant to today's headlines. With ARGO, Ben Affleck has, in my estimation, just catapulted himself into the upper-echelon of working directors, and I will now actively look forward to what he does next. Argo stands as a top-notch example of the kind of film we need more of: it's a big, fun, engaging drama that nonetheless actually says something about the way things were and the way things are. This is one of the year's best.
My Grade: A-