Sunday, January 13, 2013


Argo (2012) Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Tate Donovan Directed by Ben Affleck. Produced by Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney  Screenplay by Chris Terrio. Based on The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. Run Time: 120 minutes. U.S.  Color. Thriller

The glut of awards shows has done little to take away the importance, at least in the mind of those involved in the film industry, of the Academy Awards, aka Oscars. A few years ago, the Academy decided to open up its list of Best Picture nominees from five to nine. One of the end results is that some really good films are not overlooked for consideration. Argo was one such film that was picked for consideration of this top honor. While I would go broke trying to figure out how the Academy will vote, they could do a lot worse than selecting this film.

Argo tells a real story, though there are obviously some dramatic licenses taken. Back in 1979, as a protest against the United States having given refuge to the former Shah of Iran, protesters in Tehran took over the American embassy and held the employees hostage for 444 days. This event and the U.S.’s impudent response led to Jimmy Carter being a one-term President and changed forever our relationship with Iran.

But in the hubbub of the takeover, six Americans managed to escape and took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home. But after six weeks, the Canadians grew tired of playing host. Argo tells the story of how the CIA got the six out of Tehran and safely out of Iran. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent known for exfiltrating people out of hostile situations. Mendez is initially called in to let the State Department run their ideas by him. But as the film calls it, all the ideas are bad.

Mendez comes up with the idea of using the guise of a Canadian film crew coming to Iran to scope out locations. In order to sell the idea, Mendez contacts John Chambers (John Goodman), an award-winning makeup artist, who had previously done work for the agency. Chambers in turn contacts Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer who has apparently seen better days. The trio finds the screenplay Argo, a fantasy space adventure that has a Middle East twist as the vehicle to use. They set up a fake production company and with government approval, Mendez flies to Tehran via Canada and sets his plan in motion.

Since the film is still in general release, I won’t go into much more detail, but safe to say, even though you know how it ends or is going to end, if you’re not old enough to know already, Affleck does a great job with building tension.

The film pokes deserved fun at Hollywood and at the U.S. government for how each operates. And it gets serious when it needs to be. The Iranian revolutionaries are not a funny bunch and the film does not take them lightly. Suspense is handled very well throughout.

Argo also does a really good job of recreating the world of 1979, with its horrible fashions to the technology. Hollywood also appears as it did back in the late seventies. Back then the Burbank Studios was not solely Warner Brothers.

However, the film is historically inaccurate when it comes to the Hollywood sign. Originally erected in 1923 as an advertisement for the Hollywoodland real estate development, by 1978 the sign was in tatters. The LAND part of the sign had disappeared and the rest was falling down or in the process of falling down. However, by 1979 when this film is set, the sign had been rebuilt, though Argo shows it still in disrepair. Whatever symbolism this is supposed to present is lost on me, but this inaccuracy is not enough to detract from the film.

The casting seems to find lookalikes for everyone, but in All the President’s Men’s fashion, the lead is upgraded. Not to take away from Tony Mendez, but Affleck is a visual improvement, as are many of the actors, but they do recall the real life people they play.

But it is not the production design, casting or the music supervision that makes the movie. It is the script and the directing. Not being familiar with the original sources I would have to credit the screenplay with the mix of humor and suspense. It seems to have the mix correct. When the film is supposed to be funny, it is and when it needs to be suspenseful it is as well. Chris Terrio received a well-deserved nomination from the Academy for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Great writing in filmmaking only gets you so far. It is the director who brings the words to life and gets the right performances out of his actors. Affleck deserves a lot of credit for his work on this film, which tells the story from three distinct vantage points, Tehran, D.C. and Hollywood without letting one take over. It is too bad that in their wisdom that Affleck is not nominated for Best Achievement in Directing aka Best Director by the same Academy that didn’t overlook his film.

I have never been a big fan of Affleck’s, who seems at best to have had a very uneven career in Hollywood. The first time I ever heard of him was when he shared the Best Original Screenplay honors with his friend Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting (1997). Since then he’s appeared in box office hits that got poor reviews, Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001) as well as some forgettable films, like Changing Lanes (2001) and The Sum of All Fears (2002) and some regrettable films, like Daredevil (2003), Gigli (2003) and Surviving Christmas (2004).

In 2006, Affleck got critical praise for his performance as Superman actor George Reeves in the uneven Hollywoodland and his career seemed to rebound. In 2007, he directed Gone Baby Gone and in 2010, the critically acclaimed The Town. Argo is Affleck’s third film to direct and he really seems to have come into his own and I look forward to seeing what he will do next.

Argo is a really good movie and is one that should be seen no matter how it fares at the Academy Awards. The film is one of the best from 2012 and would be a film I would definitely watch again.

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