Sunday, October 14, 2012

Taut, timely "Argo" makes early bid for Oscar


directed by Ben Affleck
starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, others

We’re still early in the Oscar season—preseason, really—but 2012 just may have its first bona fide frontrunner for Best Picture. An impressive feat by any measure, “Argo” is set up to appeal particularly to Academy voters. Based on the story of one of the most outlandish CIA missions in U.S. history, it’s at once a tense white-knuckle thriller, a topical and uncannily timely reminder of the tarnished history of U.S.-Iranian relations, and a slyly entertaining satire of Hollywood that punctures the industry’s self-importance while elevating its actual, real-world importance. It’s also an ideal vehicle for the Academy’s acknowledgment of another amazing true story: the improbable rise of Ben Affleck from pretty-boy movie star, best known for his overexposed love life and his terrible choice of screen roles, to one of today’s most respected young American directors. For all these reasons, I’ll be very surprised if the film—which is Affleck’s best yet, by a country mile—doesn’t gather some serious Oscar traction between now and February.

“Argo” opens with a concise summary of the historical events leading to the 1979 Iranian revolution before cutting quickly to the day a mob of Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took over 50 Americans hostage. In the ensuing chaos, six Americans managed to escape the embassy and find refuge with the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Faced with the near-impossible task of getting the six secretly and safely out of the country before they could be discovered, the U.S. government approved a scheme just-so-crazy-it-might-work: CIA “exfil(tration)” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) would enter Iran under the pretense of scouting Middle Eastern locations for a movie and, armed with fake passports, papers, and cover stories for the six Americans, get them out by having them pose as his crew. But first he had to lay the groundwork by securing a real script, a fake production company and office, and P.R. for the fake movie in the Hollywood trades—all of which he did, with the assistance of his Hollywood contact, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a screenplay for a fantasy film titled, you guessed it, “Argo.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the plan, against all odds, worked. The real revelation is Affleck’s ability to make the story of its execution so riveting, even for viewers who know how it turned out. Shot on grainy film rather than digital, with Istanbul standing in for Tehran, and incorporating substantial archival news footage from that period, “Argo” effectively evokes the gestalt of the Carter era—from the undercurrents of anger and anxiety over the hostage crisis to the ubiquitous cigarettes and unfortunate stylings of the period. Affleck also captures, all too convincingly, the bizarre alterna-universe of a post-“Star Wars” movie industry eager to cash in on the popularity of that sci-fi juggernaut. We see Tinseltown mainly through the eyes of the jovially cynical Chambers and the even more cynical, wisecracking producer he recruits (a fictional character, I think, but delightfully played by Alan Arkin) to get Argo’s fake production company up and running. The two of them are comedy gold, with Arkin stealing most of the best lines. Though for that matter, it seems like half of the characters in this movie know exactly when and how to deliver the perfect quip—even the government grunts, including Mendez’s CIA boss (Bryan Cranston, wonderful).

Alas, that doesn’t include Mendez himself—at least not as portrayed by Affleck, who as an actor, it pains me to say, is the weak link in his own movie. His idea of gravitas seems to be to look morose for most of the film, with occasional stabs at looking earnest or pensive. It’s not a grating performance, just inert, and frankly outclassed by the excellence of the rest of the cast. I found myself wishing he’d cast his old buddy Matt Damon instead for the lead; or maybe Kyle Chandler, who has a small role here as Carter’s chief of staff.

Still, Affleck’s limitations in front of the camera don’t diminish his skills behind it. One of his most admirable accomplishments in “Argo” is his ability to shift seamlessly from suspense to comedy and back again without missing a beat. Another, related, is his crisp pacing; he knows exactly how long to draw out a scene for maximum effect. In the last third of the movie he masterfully ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable point as he cuts between the Americans making their great escape and the Iranians on the verge of piecing together the truth about this Hollywood “crew.” (In the theater where I saw the movie, there was an audible collective exhalation the instant it let go of our balls, if you'll pardon the expression.)

Not surprisingly, some of this cinematic virtuosity comes at the expense of historical accuracy. In that nail-biting final stretch, “Argo” invents a lot of complications, while in other places it excises or simplifies them. In particular, the film’s elicited complaints that it marginalizes the role the Canadian government played in assisting the six Americans—not just hiding them but also facilitating the rescue mission itself. While these omissions weren’t very tactful to the Canadians, they most likely reflect a desire to maximize watchability rather than to glorify the Americans. In general, the film avoids anything that could be construed as either mythologizing or vilifying the U.S.; it’s simply focused on telling a ripping good yarn.

Ironically, that’s also perhaps why it doesn’t quite rise to the level of greatness. “Argo” is at its best when it shows the operation in motion, and that’s clearly where its heart is. The characters, while well played, seem more like cogs in the machinery of the plot, and Affleck’s efforts to give Mendez more of a (largely fictionalized) personal history fall flat. Ultimately he doesn’t really have all that much to say about the incredible true story he’s coopted other than what an incredible true story it is. Still, it’s rare to see such stories told so well, and for that alone he deserves all the accolades he's getting.



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