Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Movie Review: Argo

Directed by: Ben Affleck.
Written by: Chris Terrio based on the article by Joshuah Bearman.
Starring: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O'Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Chris Messina (Malinov), Zeljko Ivanek (Robert Pender), Titus Welliver (Bates), Keith Szarabajka (Adam Engell), Bob Gunton (Cyrus Vance), Richard Kind (Max Klein), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez).

A lot of actors eventually try their hand at directing. Some do it simply as a vanity project or to prove to themselves they can actually do it. And some become filmmakers whose directing career eventually becomes even better than their acting career – Clint Eastwood for instance. Ben Affleck is more of the second type of actor. A few years ago, Affleck, the actor, had a string of disappointments on his resume and was most likely disappointed with how things had gone for the past few years. So he directed Gone Baby Gone (2007), a wonderful little crime movie that turned out to be much deeper than its genre roots suggested. He followed that up with The Town (2010), which was another fine crime film. With those two films, Affleck proved himself to be a director to watch – one with a definite skill and style. If he hadn’t quite crafted a great movie yet, he was surely on his way to doing so. His third film, Argo, is that great film.

Argo is a thriller, that if it wasn’t true, you couldn’t possibly believe it. As everyone knows, in 1979 Iranians stormed the American embassy and took all the workers their hostage. Six of those workers however escaped out a back door and ended up hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. No one knew they were there, and it had to stay that way. Eventually though, these six workers had to get out of the country – and no one has any idea how to do that. That is until Tony Mendez (Affleck), who specializes in getting people out of places that shouldn’t be, comes up with a gloriously absurd idea – the six embassy workers are really a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off that needs an exotic location, deserts, etc. Why wouldn’t a film crew want to shoot a movie in Iran during a hostage crisis?

It turns out making a fake movie isn’t as easy as you would think. The key to getting away with any lie is that the details have to be accurate. And so before he heads to Iran, Tony heads to L.A. He meets up with John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar winning make-up man and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer. They need to make Argo, the movie they are supposedly making, look real – they have a script, a poster, storyboards and even host a big event in Hollywood and get written up in Variety. Then Tony heads to Iran to train the embassy workers on their jobs, so they can head to the airport and all fly out together.

In some respects, Argo is almost two different movies – both of them great. On one hand, you have a Hollywood comedy not unlike Wag the Dog, where a Washington insider goes to a Hollywood producer to create a fake war, and the scenes in LA are mined for great comedic effect. John Goodman and especially Alan Arkin are great in their roles as Hollywood men, doing something not for fame or money, but simply because it is the right thing to do. These scenes are great for film buffs.

The other movie is much more delicate and hard to pull off – a thriller without chase sequences, shootouts or really any violence of any kind. It is easy to manufacture drama, and get audiences perched on the edge of their seats with those types of scenes, but Argo contains none of them. Instead, it is a breathless thriller where seemingly simple actions are heightened to an almost unbearable degree of suspense – where a simple questioning by the Imperial Guard becomes nail biting. This is where Affleck’s real accomplishment lay.

Affleck also casts his movie well – even the smallest roles are seemingly played by actors we recognize, and together they make up one of the best ensembles of the years. Arkin and Goodman are great, yes, as the Hollywood people. Even better though is Bryan Cranston, the best actor on TV right now, as Affleck’s CIA boss who is quick thinking, intelligent and has an acid tongued sense of humor, even in the most intense moments. Scoot McNairy is also wonderful as one of the embassy workers who doesn’t think they should be leaving.

Argo is gripping, exciting, funny entertainment. It’s rare to get someone attempting that mixture in a film – even more rare for a film to pull it. If Gone Baby Gone and The Town showed Affleck was a director with promise, Argo fulfills that promise.

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