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ARGO
(****)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Ben Affleck
Writer:
Screenplay by Chris Terrio, adapted from Joshuah Bearman’s article: "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran"
Starring:
Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Length:   120 minutes
Released:   101212
Rating:
R for language and some violent images
“...it dazzles with its natural intrigue, but it impacts thanks to its director’s natural storytelling abilities that were gleaned from the old masters..." 

Released at the height of election season and centered around the Iran hostage crisis, “Argo” would appear to be a political film; however, it is a restrained, mostly apolitical film that simply stumps for quiet heroism, duty, and honor in a world that’s grown increasingly entangled in bureaucratic red tape and political maneuvering.

Set mostly in 1980 during the height of the crisis, “Argo” spins a yarn so incredible that you wouldn’t believe it had Hollywood cooked it up--so of course, Hollywood did help cook it up. While the bulk of the crisis involved those captured at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, six Americans managed to escape and hole up in the Canadian ambassador’s home. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) specializes in concocting elaborate escapes for such situations, so he devises a scheme that will turn the six escapees into a Canadian film crew who are in Iran under the guise of location scouting. Working with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist Jack Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez rushes “Argo” into production, a false film with very real stakes.

It’s been said that Ben Affleck’s first two directorial efforts have put him in the Sidney Lumet business, and it seems as though he’s embraced that here; not only does “Argo” feature a reference to “Network,” but it's cut from the same cloth as some of the legendary director’s work. Stylistically, it’s tossed on some gritty, vintage 70s clothes that even still bear an outmoded Warner Brothers logo, but the mimicry is effortless and unaffected. The film goes beyond mere dress-up, too, as Affleck injects the soul of Sidney Lumet’s best work into “Argo,” a film that bustles with energy, drama, and, most importantly, humanity.

“Argo” often feels like a human interest story writ large, but, then again so did “Dog Day Afternoon,” another unbelievable true story made believable by a director who could peer behind the incredulity and capture the raw humanity underpinning it all. Affleck accomplishes the same with an unassuming ease; though his ensemble is enormous, there’s a genuine quality to each character. “Lived in” doesn’t sufficiently describe the film--it’s more seamless and authentic than that, especially since “Argo” looks like it could have been made three years after these events rather than three decades.

Despite several noteworthy performances (especially from Arkin and Goodman--go figure, the two Hollywood personalities ring loudest), no one’s attempting to gnaw the film away here, so we’re simply watching human beings rather than a series of acting displays for our consideration. At the center of this is Affleck, not only as Mendez--who he realizes with a powerfully reserved, dignified performance--but also as director, as he guides “Argo” with a steady hand and masterfully avoids all of the tone and narrative potholes that could beset a film like this.

This is no small task, either, because “Argo” could have been a sloggy mess; it bounces between different modes and tones throughout, and Affleck finds a perfect balance of levity, suspense, and historical context. His deft ability to mix is apparent from the outset, when viewers are caught up to speed on America’s involvement in Iran that set the stage for the hostage crisis. Not content to deliver a stodgy, textbook recitation, Affleck uses comic book panels and archive footage, an approach that’s crisp, concise, and just plain cool.

And “Argo” just gets cooler, smarter, and more thrilling as it zips along; for all of its high stakes, it’s a remarkably breezy affair because it’s stripped of all pretension. While the film never makes light of the situation--it’s far too suspenseful to do that--it does carry a certain lightness that allows it to work at its most primal level as an entertaining thriller. The first hour bounces between the severity of Iran and the unreality of Hollywood, and the two seemingly irreconcilable scenes and the extraordinary story that connects them coalesce into a thrilling, white-knuckle climax that precisely cuts between multiple scenes; it’s here that “Argo” reveals itself to be pure cinema--it’s a wildly compelling story that’s delivered with a thunderous sense of entertainment. It’s a fine reminder of the days when films could be thrilling thanks to inherent, character and story driven drama rather than overcooked spectacle--by the end of the film, one feels like Affleck has even aped Hitchcock or Frankenheimer.

But “Argo” is more than just a rousing crowd-pleaser in its clever intertwining of the two scenes. Since there are so many self-inflicted potshots, it’s not a self-aggrandizing pat on the back for Hollywood, but it literalizes film as escapism, a notion that constantly refracts back on itself as you consider the scenario. Here you have the movie industry hatching an escape plan as audiences indulge in a movie that grows progressively diverting and less burdened by its political mechanizations. The film might be briefly caught up in its political scene, particularly when it’s capturing its ground level rawness in the form of the chaotic, flag-burning riots in Tehran and the hardboiled Washington bureaucratic machine that attempts to grind Mendez’s plot from its inception.

However, once the final act truly takes hold, these particulars begin to melt away as the great escape itself takes precedence; this is just another old Hollywood staple, here repurposed as an impossibly enjoyable thriller that thrives on primeval storytelling themes that enable it to transcend its specific, historical milieu. “Argo” is certainly the triumph of these unspoken heroes--one might say that Tony Mendez is the sort of real-world analogue to James Bond and other spy movie figures--but it makes me ponder just how many other heroes and exploits are hiding behind blacked out lines in confidential files. Values like cooperation, loyalty, and duty still exist here, as they always have, and Affleck wisely lionizes them without overwrought sentimentality.

That an actual film has finally told the story that hinged upon a false one seems appropriate, and it’s perhaps even more appropriate that “Argo” takes the form of the fictional “Argo.” It’s obviously not a science fiction film, but it subtly mirrors the plot of its fake film, which revolves around revolutionaries fighting to liberate themselves from oppressive overlords, a universal motif that eventually (and obviously) wins over the Iranian arts commission and other natives who would otherwise prevent Mendez and his escapees from leaving the country. Chris Terrio’s screenplay even alters the historical details to have Mendez’s plan be inspired by “Battle of the Planet of the Apes,” a film that revolves around similar themes.

Science fiction and fantasy help to save the day, and, if the film does heartily romanticize any scene, it’s that one. Affleck lovingly gazes back through the pessimism and cynicism of the age to reveal the excitement these genres generated even as Hollywood had begun to recycle them after “Star Wars” revolutionized the industry. In an era where nerd culture has been recycled to the point of exhaustion--the nerds have had their revenge and then had it sold back to them--“Argo” provides a genuine, subtle tribute to it. There’s a scene where Mendez and his Hollywood pals stage a false casting call, but it looks more like a cosplay convention as aliens (one of them is even genre movie queen Adrienne Barbeau!) and other creatures prowl around a hotel lobby. Even Jack Kirby’s contributions don’t go unnoticed, as he briefly pops up (played by Michael Parks) to provide the storyboards for the fictional “Argo.”

The notion that such a then-marginalized culture could have world-changing impact is wonderful and cuts right to the heart of what “Argo” is truly about. Affleck doesn’t wave the flag for America, preferring instead to stay clear-headed about the country’s complicity in creating the mess in Iran; instead, the incredible tale presented by “Argo” should appeal across borders and cultures.

Of course, calling it completely apolitical or ignoring its current relevance is unfair. After all, its timeliness with the escalating situation in Iran makes it difficult to ignore the various seeds of dissent that have been planted in that region. “Argo” presents one such seed, and the current turmoil is like the cloud of irony that hovers above it: for all the film's triumph and hope, those seeds still haven't fully blossomed into an Arab Spring in the thirty years since. Instead, it seems as though it’s stuck in a perpetual winter of discontent despite our--and Affleck’s--best efforts to put come cinematic distance between us and its turmoil.

That’s not a knock against it, though--after all, I don’t think “Argo” aims for full escapism; rather, it aims to revel not only in the magic of making the impossible plausible on the screen, but also in reminding us just how very real and relevant it is. Impeccably crafted and humbly performed by a cast of pros, “Argo” is Affleck’s most accomplished work to date--it dazzles with its natural intrigue, but it impacts thanks to its director’s natural storytelling abilities that were gleaned from the old masters--and it's evident in every frame. Argo is one of the years best films.

 

ARGO © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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