Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movie Review: "Argo"

If you had told me during the height of the "Bennifer" craze that Ben Affleck would transform into one of the best directors currently working, and a strong actor to boot, I probably wouldn't have believed you. (Did you see Gigli?) But after marveling at his direction of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and now the spectacular Argo—not to mention his strong performances in the latter two movies—I'd say you're absolutely right.

I was nearly 10 years old in 1979 when angry Iranian citizens stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. While I was generally aware this occurred, and the continuing crisis remained in the back of my mind (although I'll admit at the time I knew more about what was happening behind the scenes on The Love Boat or Three's Company more than current events), like many, I had no idea that six Embassy employees had escaped and eventually made it back to the U.S. So as the events in Argo unfolded, for the most part, it was like I was finding things out for the first time.

The movie begins with a brief narration of the history and events that led up to the animosity Iran felt toward the U.S. back in 1979. Watching the angry mob work up the strength to storm the embassy and overrun its staff, it felt as if I was there in the middle of what was happening. Affleck's direction here was superb—the tension and emotions on both sides was truly palpable. You felt the anxiety of the Embassy employees as they decided their only recourse was to flee the dangers that awaited them.

Affleck, complete with shaggy 70s hair and beard, plays CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, pressed into service by the agency to help extract the six employees who were hiding at the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). He comes up with an unlikely scenario—he and the "houseguests" (as they are referred to throughout the movie) will pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie, and after looking around Tehran, will fly to Switzerland. To give the scenario the authenticity it will need in order to succeed with suspicious Iranians, Mendez flies to Hollywood where he enlists the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who gets to spout the best lines in the film), finds a script, and starts building the necessary publicity buzz in Hollywood. (I'm not gonna lie—I was psyched to see Adrienne Barbeau in the movie, because I'm still a child of the 70s and 80s, what do you want from me?)

Finally getting the go ahead from the U.S. government, Mendez flies first to Istanbul and then Tehran to begin the extraction operation. Of course, he has to gain the trust of the houseguests (not an easy feat) and overcome suspicion and very close investigation of the Iranian secret police, not to mention the changing plans of his own government.

It takes an excellent director to make a movie compelling when you know what is ultimately going to happen, but that is exactly what happens with Argo. Affleck's direction and the performances are top-notch, and the plot is so tightly wound, that you find yourself wondering whether the story will divert from the path you expect it to take, much like Apollo 13.

There doesn't seem to be a false note in this movie—even the toys in Mendez's son's room are authentic to the time period. The few moments of humor don't truly distract you from the story at hand, although Arkin's show-stealing performance would certainly justify your being distracted. Affleck brings a quiet power and vulnerability to his role, and the actors who play the houseguests—particularly Scoot McNairy as the one hardest to convince—bring tension and fear to their performances. And Affleck doesn't simply make the Iranians one-dimensional stereotypes; in particular, Farshad Farahat, as the airport guard who isn't quite sure whether to believe the scenario Mendez has woven, gives a simmering portrayal.

I truly hope that this movie and Affleck get the recognition they deserve come Oscar time. I felt as if The Town was definitely worthy of a Best Picture nomination two years ago but it was passed over, and I hope that doesn't happen again. But regardless of the awards this film receives, it serves as one more powerful notice that Ben Affleck is one of the most talented directors of this generation, and I look forward to continuing to enjoy his contributions to film.

1 comment:

  1. Not the most perfect movie I’ve seen this year, but is still an entertaining flick about a top-secret mission nobody ever knew about. Sadly, we all know how it ends and that’s what kind of sucks all of the energy out of this flick in the long-run. Good review.