Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ARGO (2012)

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The 2012 Oscar nominees had some of the most controversial choices in it's history; of the ten films nominated, three were historical films (Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, Ben Affleck's ARGO and Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY) that were all criticized for inaccuracies, and the latter two of those films delved into the confrontational modern relationship between the US and the Middle East, which inevitably led to even more condemnation.  The most uproar was directed  at  ZERO DARK THIRTY, which portrayed the US military's hunting and killing of Terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden as an exciting thriller, but that also appeared to imply that that that search for Bin Laden was aided by the torture of terrorist suspects, a highly disputed point.  The anger at the film's portrayal of "enhanced interrogation techniques" even spilled over to the halls of congress.  Therefore, on the night of the Oscar broadcast, there was more than a little tension.  Would the Academy embrace such a divisive film?  At first, it appeared that ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY may have split the vote, allowing Ang Lee's far less incendiary  LIFE OF PI to possibly sneak in.   When Lee's film won Oscars for  its score, special effects and cinematography, followed by Lee himself best winning for best director, (his second win) it certainly seemed a possibility.  But, instead the award went to ARGO, the less controversial of the two films.  It's victory was really understandable; while Bigelow's film dealt with recent history, ARGO's late 1970's setting allowed for more perspective, and therefore its harsh look at Iran could be seen as criticism from a distance.  More importantly,  Affleck's film is just a really good, entertaining movie, with not only effectively done period settings and plenty of tension, but surprising amounts of humor, throw in some nice satire of Hollywood producers that the Academy could surely identify with, and its victory seemed more and more likely.  It's also a nice comeback success story for its director and star Ben Affleck, who, after winning a best original screenplay award for GOOD WILL HUNTING in 1997, had drifted into lackluster roles and tabloid controversy, before returning as a surprisingly effective director with 2007's GONE BABY GONE.

The film's story began when, in 2007, writer Joshuah Bearman wrote an article called "The Great Escape" for WIRED magazine, based on just declassified documents about a CIA operation to rescue American hostages trapped in Iran in 1979 after that country's revolution. Producers David Klawans, George Clooney and Grant Heslov bought the rights to the story, and in 2011 Affleck was brought on to direct, co produce and star in the film as CIA agent Tony Mendez.  Filming was accomplished quickly, with Istanbul standing in for Iran and the scenes at CIA headquarters shot on location in Washington DC.  Considering the films time period, Affleck consciously tried to capture the look of a 1970's film, even going so far as to blow up the film to increase its graininess. With strong reviews and word of mouth, the $44,000,000 film returned $136,000,000 in the US.

John Goodman, Alan Arkin, & Ben Affleck

Starting in 1979, it begins with the overthrow of the Iranian government and the taking of American diplomats as hostages.  Six of them manage to escape to the Canadian embassy, but it appears its only a matter of time before the Iranian government discovers where they are.  At the CIA, agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes up with the idea of creating a fake Hollywood movie that would send producers and crew members to Iran to pretend to be scouting locations.  Working with Hollywood producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), Mendez travels to Iran, and after many moments of tension, he and his fake crew manage to bluff their way back into the US.

Other than attempting to capture the look of a 70's movie, Affleck directoral style here is straightforward and no nonsense; never flashy, he trusts that the tense story and the fine performances should always be at the forefront of the film, and he's right.  The editing together of authentic news reel footage with new scenes is seamless and effective, and I also like the constant usage of real TV news broadcasts from that era to show just how heavy the hostage crisis loomed over the country.  Director Affleck is also good at changing the film's tone when CIA agent Tony goes to Hollywood and seeks the help of makeup artist John Chambers (based on a real person, who did the makeup for the original PLANET OF THE APES movies, played by John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Seigel (made up for the movie) and the film becomes very funny, signaled by seeing Goodman's character at work on a loving recreation of a "b" sci-fi movie set complete with cheesy monster. All of the Hollywood scenes are great fun, and both Goodman and Arkin seem to having a ball playing brash, profane, wise cracking men who sign on to make a fake movie partly out of patriotic duty and partly for a lark.  The funniest moment comes when, in a delightful in joke, cynical makeup man John tells director Affleck's character,  "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

But despite the good humor, the film never lets us forget that it's all in service to a deadly serious (and very risky) plan, and once Tony travels to Iran, the tension never lets up.  There's a marvelous scene in which Tony has to take the six diplomats with him to pretend to scout locations, and they are forced to slowly drive thorough a loud protest that could turn violent at any moment; even if you know how the film ends, it's a chilling moment.  And many other moments in the film are just as pulse pounding, from the children slowly piecing together shredded pictures of the ambassadors that could give them away, to the casual but threatening tone of the soldiers at the airport, the film is an excellent example of how the constant threat of violence can be more suspenseful in a movie than actual acts of violence.

Affleck's lead performance in the film mirrors his no nonsense style of direction; his character is a tight lipped professional who has to wear a poker face through much of the film.  He knows that the audience will immediately admire his character  for so willingly putting his own life on the line to save others, so he doesn't have to play for sympathy. And even in the scenes with his family, Affleck thankfully avoids maudlin sentiment.  That goes for the rest of the cast, who, (except for the funny mugging of Goodman and Arkin) play characters who accept the seriousness of their situation with stoic realism, from the endangered ambassadors to Bryan Cranston's tough CIA chief Jack O'Donnell.

Except for one faithful maid, all of the Iranian characters in the film are portrayed negatively; while that is perhaps to be expected given the nature of the story, it still may have been nice to see some people in Iran who aren't threatening.  However, to the film's credit, the CIA's direct involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the fall out from that overthrow is clearly mentioned at the beginning of the film.

Ben Afflick & Bryan

I've already mentioned that the film has taken some criticism for its inaccuracies; while most of these are just small things done to build up the tension  I do have a small problem with some: for example, the film states that the British and New Zealand embassies turned away the six American diplomats, when in fact they both did provide some help, and former President Jimmy Carter himself, while praising the film, said that he thought the Canadian Embassy should have been given more credit in carrying out the plan.   But I don't think these are fatal flaws.  One problem I do have is that, while I've mentioned how much I enjoy the movie's constant tension, I think it goes too far by having Iranian soldiers literally chasing after the plane with our heroes on it just as it takes off; this is, of course, all Hollywood fiction, and it feels like it.  Not surprisingly, the real diplomats got away with more than mere seconds to spare.  Still, in a film with so many well done suspense scenes, one that milks the tension a little too much is forgivable.


This is a tough call for me: although I can't find much to fault with ARGO, I think that Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is just a shade better.  Lee's film manages to be a beautiful looking adventure story while also having an interesting philosophical take on religion.  But ARGO is a fine choice.