MOVIE REVIEW: Argo
ARGO-- 5 STARS
When some folks talk about a film's appeal and impact, the word "timely" sometimes gets used. In most cases, the move to make a so-called timely film is an intentional one from those who bankroll to bring movies to the masses. Movies have long piggy-backed off of the pulse of the mob, so to speak. They seek centrist connections that they can market. For examples, you wouldn't see Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis hammed it up in The Campaign in a non-election year. It's just not smart business for the audience you hope to reach and play towards.
Every now and then, though, a movie that doesn't mean to be timely becomes timely by accident. Sometimes the unintended and coincidental connection can be an even more powerful draw than a well-manufactured one. Take 2002's Spider-Man. That superhero event picture was going to be released no matter what in the summer after 9/11/2001, but with the web-slinger being a New Yorker, the movie and its heroism had a little something extra going for it. That's a soft example, but one of many to examine. My annual 9/11 movie impact editorial goes further into detail.
Back to the present. Ben Affleck's third directorial effort, Argo, was just looking to be an interesting, suspenseful, and taut time capsule to the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981, a somewhat forgotten episode of American history from 30-plus years ago. However, with last month's shocking attacks on U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East, particularly in Libya and Egypt, and the heightened nuclear tension with Iran, Argo has, due to unfortunate circumstances, become "timely" in an unplanned way. It reminds us of our unfortunate history in the country of Iran and foreshadows the continuing trouble the United States of America has had in the entire region since this event.
Timely or not, Argo is an extremely impressive and well-crafted political thriller that would carry a resonance even without last month's violent developments. The movie is superior enough to not need this boost of timeliness, yet honors its parallel moment in history with a stirring story of heroism, diplomacy, resolve, and secrecy. A movie this good does not have to be timely to be one of the very best films of 2012.
For those who are light on their history, on November, 4 1979, anti-Shah and pro-Ayatollah Iranian protesters seized the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. Six embassy workers (played by Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Christopher Denham) were able to escape and were taken in for safety and hidden by the sympathetic Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber) and his wife at their residence. Due to sparse communication, Washington intelligence doesn't hear of their escape and existence for over 60 days. When they do, both the Department of State and the CIA begin to draw up possible operations for extracting the six while President Jimmy Carter and the national media cover the main hostage crisis at the embassy.
With such hostile anti-American conditions, every option is implausible or impossible, that is until inspiration strikes. CIA specialist Tony Mendez (played by Affleck himself) and his boss (Bryan Cranston) outline a possible cover of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic Middle East filming locations. Tony volunteers to fly into Tehren himself to make this happen. However, in order for that cover to pass through strict security, it has to appear more legitimate than just on-paper. They need a "real" fake movie.
Enter Hollywood and a different kind of Get Shorty story. The CIA contacts Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who has extended his talents to the spy agency in the past. Tony conveys the classified situation to Chambers and he's on board. In order to complete the cover, Chambers brings in a Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to acquire a script, create a studio front, and provide press coverage on the fake film. Working from a turnaround project and Star Wars knock-off piece entitled Argo, the wheels are put in motion and the plan takes shape.
Through each step of making this operation happen, Ben Affleck tightens the screws ever so slightly as the film plays out. Even while Argo has its light scenes in Hollywood, the desperation and growing threat facing the six escapees in Iran never leaves our consciousness. When the scope of the mission's repercussions for success and failure come into focus, the screws continue to tighten. While some of that might be Hollywood's dramatic license of real history, the result is incredibly effective entertainment without bleeding cliche patriotism or crude vilification of the other side.
Filled with a wide collection of detailed and developed character roles, Affleck has assembled a great cast adept to handle big moments in small roles. From Garber and Cranston quelling pulses to Arkin and Goodman finding pride out of secrecy, everyone contributes to Argo's solid effort. As the lead actor, Affleck himself hums with the right pitch of courage versus urgency. The Ben Affleck in front of the camera from 10-15 years ago might have tried to make this into something loud and macho, but the Ben of today working behind the camera as well knew when to let the tension grow organically.
Directing his third feature after the exceptional Boston-based pair of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck continues to improve and mature as a filmmaker, and Argo is an Oscar-worthy effort on many levels. The balance he gives the film, both stylistically and with tone and pace, is remarkable. He wisely lets the real underlying history do the talking. Framed with an opening movie storyboard prologue and a side-by-side comparison with the actual history in the epilogue, never in Argo do you feel force-fed bias, coerced empathy, or shameful guilt while watching, even when the movie elements come into play.
The rest of the movie's exceptional polish comes from the Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March producing team of Grant Heslov and George Clooney. They supplied Affleck with talented Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) and Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat to give the movie a palette and a soul. Argo is a heroic story without requiring a studly action hero. Like its declassified true story, a team effort is conducted and celebrated with Argo. While this film will become "timely" by circumstance, once again, it earns its merit, attention, and appreciation without needing the boost.
LESSON #1: THE FIRST RULE IN ANY DECEPTION OPERATION IS TO UNDERSTAND WHO YOUR AUDIENCE IS-- This is a quote from the real Tony Mendez himself on these events. Much like the writing process in school, you definitely need to know who your audience is. That target is the first compass point. That information gives you your project's boundaries, focus, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, triggers, and pitfalls.
LESSON #2: HOW TO SELL A LIE-- Some the Argo's humor comes from the business of lying, both within the clandestine world of CIA spy secrecy and in the crooked Hollywood movie business. The similarities between those two entities are surprisingly uncanny and thought-provoking when viewed side-by-side and, in this case, in cahoots together. A good covert cover story is as deceptive as a brash hardball pitch to get a movie deal made. While the stakes may be different, the degree of deception is the same goal when each group sells lies for a living.
LESSON #3: PUTTING YOUR LIFE ON THE LINE FOR RESPONSIBILITY-- Once you get past the necessary manufactured lies that spur the espionage and master plan of Argo, you see the real purpose and cause that those lies make possible. We see a government that won't give up on its own people. We see a leader and an neighbor risk his livelihood and safety to shield strangers that need his help. We see movie moguls that put riches aside to help their country. We see a determined man stick his own neck out to gain the trust of those in his charge. Most of them do it knowing they will never get public recognition for their actions. Each of Argo's contributors take on these risks and consequences out of a sense of responsibility. That sense of duty and desire is worth more than all the lies and deception.