Sunday, October 14, 2012
Sunday Review: Argo (2012)
Who says they don’t make them like they used to?
Ben Affleck’s Argo opens on a set of storyboards detailing a brief history of Iran, and already the intrinsic relationship of fiction and reality is laid out before our eyes. But Affleck’s film isn’t some treatise on the nature of storytelling - there’s no self-important grandstanding on the importance of art and the reasons artists are compelled to make it. Rather, Argo is all about putting on a show. Hollywood, the CIA, the Iranian revolutionaries… They’re all putting on shows (as a producer laments early on when seeing the Iranian protests, “They sure know how to get the ratings”). And in this game, whoever puts on the most convincing one wins.
Detailing the real world events of 1979-80, Argo tells the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA agent charged with exfiltrating a group of six U.S. diplomats hiding out at a Canadian ambassador’s house during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Quickly running out of time and options to get a group of Americans out of a hostile country where Caucasians are frequently detained and questioned, Mendez concocts a scheme to pose as a Canadian film crew for a fake science fiction film scouting for shooting locations. It’s maybe not the most rock-solid plan, but as one character laments during the movie, “It’s the best bad idea we’ve got.”
Who could have possibly projected the trajectory Ben Affleck’s career has taken? From promising young actor to teen heartthrob to kind of a joke to one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, Affleck has had quite the ride. And for his third feature in the director’s chair, he proves that he’s really only just getting started. Affleck also takes the starring role of Tony Mendez - maybe not the first choice, but Affleck imbues his role with the kind of worn-down determination found frequently in movie heroes of the 1970’s, when scruffy reporters and twitchy laymen worked tirelessly through the night to accomplish their noble deeds. Affleck digs deep into the well to pull out that same sort of performance - one almost unmistakable from the likes of Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.
The film changes gears about a quarter of the way through when Mendez goes to Hollywood and meets up with make-up maestro John Chambers, played here by John Goodman. Chambers was probably best known for his work on the Planet of the Apes series, but also had consulted with the CIA on several occasions (presumably to aid in disguises). Goodman is joined in the Hollywood portion by Alan Arkin, who plays producer Lester Siegel (who, near as I can tell, is a creation of the film), and the two of them relish their scenes sending up the film business. The Hollywood scenes are so enjoyable it’s almost a disappointment when the film leaves behind the set-up and gets to the business of rescuing the six fugitives from Tehran… But the film paints such a rich and detailed portrait, its many twists and shifts in tone never once threaten to derail the picture.
That careful balance of tone is what’s most impressive about Affleck’s film. It’s every bit as funny as it is thrilling; deadly serious one minute and dryly sardonic the next. Political without being preachy, satirical but never devolving into farce. What other movie has such tense moments such as the rather horrifying opening where Iranian students storm the U.S. embassy mixed with a ridiculous in-costume table-read of a group of D-level actors for a Star Wars rip-off? I suppose the filmmakers are able to pull it off because the events actually happened… One of those stories that’s so unbelievable it has to be true.
Another remarkable element Affleck and his crew must be commended on is the building sense of tension. This is easily one of the most exciting films of the year, and there’s nary a fight or chase to be found throughout. Instead Affleck creates the almost unbearable tension with the oldest trick in the filmmaker’s book: cross-cutting. There are some truly standout bits of cross-cut editing on display here, as Affleck goes back and forth through several bits of business during the film’s tensest moments, upping the stakes to nail-biting levels of tension. All the special effects in the world can’t stand up to a good story told well, as the editing here proves.
It’s a standout movie through and through, worthy being mentioned in the same breath as Lumet and Pollack and the other journeyman directors of the 70’s (something Affleck no doubt was going for, considering he opens the film with Warner Brothers’ old 70’s logo). It’s a wonderfully big film - well over a hundred speaking parts, with ssome of the finest acting talent working today: Bryan Cranston, Phillip Baker Hall, Kyle Chandler, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Tom Lenk, Victor Garber and a host of others, all fantastic and believable in parts both big and small.
We never got the original Argo, but I think it’s safe to say we’re all better off with this one.
* I also would feel remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Parks’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as Jack Kirby, co-creator of a little super team called The Avengers (you may have heard of them) and a legend in his own right. Kirby had provided concept designs for the movie in real life, which were then later used by Mendez and Chambers as a part of their cover story. I think he only gets to say about two words in his brief scene, but the storyboards he provides play a crucial role throughout the film, and indeed the film closes on one of them.