Friday, October 12, 2012

In Theaters: ARGO (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Ben Affleck.  Written by Chris Terrio.  Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Michael Parks, Adrienne Barbeau, Richard Dillane, Keith Szarabajka, Jamie McShane.  (R, 120 mins)

ARGO is a riveting, relentlessly-paced chronicle of the covert operation that rescued six Americans who escaped from the US Embassy in Iran as the 1979-81 hostage crisis unfolded.  They spent nearly three months hiding in the home of Canadian ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) before CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) was able to put an extremely unlikely rescue plan in motion, or as Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) puts it:  "This is the best bad idea we've got."

Mendez is presented with a preliminary plan of getting the six Americans bicycles to ride 300 miles to the Turkish border ("You can send someone to follow them with an air pump," he says), but stumbles upon an idea while watching BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES on TV:  have the six Americans pose as a Canadian film crew scouting Iranian locations for a big-budget STAR WARS ripoff.  Mendez consults Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman), who's "worked for us before," and brings in aging Hollywood producer (and fictional composite character) Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to help establish the backstory to make the plans for the film "real."  They can't just say they're making a movie...it has to look like it's being made, which means a fake production company, ads in Variety, a table read, Chambers creating costumes and makeup effects, and Siegel doing some Hollywood wheeling and dealing.  They choose a script called ARGO, a "piece of shit" that's in turnaround and likely has no chance of getting made.  Mendez, posing as a Canadian movie producer and using the cover name "Kevin Harkins," arrives in Tehran on January 27, 1980 and meets with Taylor and the six Americans, assigns them their cover identities and preps them for an escape from the Tehran airport via a flight to Switzerland.

This whole incident was known for a long time as "The Canadian Caper," and for the safety of the 50 American hostages at the embassy (who were ultimately released on January 20, 1981), US involvement remained top secret until the whole "Argo" operation was declassified by President Clinton in 1997.  Until then, it was a Canadian operation, which strained their relations with Iran and Taylor had to head home for his own safety. There was a 1981 Canadian TV movie entitled ESCAPE FROM IRAN, which dealt with the story strictly from the Canadian side with Taylor, and one flaw of ARGO is that it does seem to downplay Taylor's involvement and just how much he put himself and his wife at risk by giving sanctuary to the Americans.  It doesn't take long for the Ayatollah's forces to figure out that six Americans are unaccounted for, and if they'd been caught, Taylor and his wife certainly would've been jailed or executed.  ARGO is, of course, "based on a true story," so Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do play a little fast and loose with some facts for the sake of dramatic and entertainment purposes. Apparently, the tension-filled trip through the Tehran airport wasn't nearly as tension-filled as the film suggests, and one of the six Americans, Robert Anders (played by Tate Donovan in a gray wig) is chosen to pose as ARGO's director because he's "the oldest of the group" at 54, when the real Anders was, in fact, just 34 at the time. 

But ARGO is not a documentary, it's a thriller, and it's a damn fine one.  After the excellent GONE BABY GONE (2007) and THE TOWN (2010), ARGO is Affleck's most accomplished work yet as a director, and one that makes a clear case that he's a serious filmmaker.  This is an actor who's clearly spent a lot of time watching and learning from other directors over the course of his career.  He does a terrific job of not just overseeing a 1980 look (from the hair, the wardrobe, and the ghastly eyeglass frames to the smoke-filled interiors) but a 1980 feel, even opening with that era's Warner Bros. logo.  ARGO has the same sort of tense, nail-biting, nerve-wracking energy that guys like Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula routinely brought to their films of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Affleck also proves to be an actors' director, graciously giving all of his co-stars the best moments, particularly Goodman and Arkin, both of whom are just fantastic.  Arkin, especially, is an absolute joy to watch as a seen-it-all dealmaker who's way past his prime but still knows how to get it done.  One surprising element of ARGO, given its grim, serious nature, is how laugh-out-loud funny it sometimes is.  Terrio's script has some great quotable dialogue, most of it coming from Arkin, Goodman, and Cranston.  The supporting cast is packed with character actors young and old and Affleck gives them all an opportunity to shine. Affleck himself is good as Mendez, even if he isn't exactly a convincing Hispanic and looks nothing like the real guy.   In the end, ARGO is a stomach-in-knots experience that honors some extraordinarily brave people and is one of the year's best films.

Tony Mendez meeting with President Jimmy Carter
in 1980 after completing the "Argo" rescue mission.

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