Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Film Review | Argo
Watch your back, Lincoln. After Golden Globes upsets, Argo just may be the smart-money candidate for the Oscar Best Picture award....
Praise, Don’t Blame, Canada
by Thomas Delapa
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives.
Just a couple years ago, after a cluster of bombs like Gigli and Jersey Girl, it was almost curtains for Ben Affleck’s Hollywood career. But since he's taken a bow in his new role as director starting with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, the jeers have been disappearing. His taut, true-life espionage thriller Argo is a movie for grown-ups, and may even garner him Oscar applause.
If all you remember of the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis is bad news, ABC’s Nightline and Ted Koppel's hair, then Argo is just the ticket for prime-time counter-programming. This isn’t the story of the 52 Americans held hostage in the U.S. embassy by Islamic revolutionaries for over a year. Rather, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio switch the focus to six other Americans who fled the Tehran embassy and hid out in the house of the Canadian ambassador, and their daring run for freedom.
Argo unfolds like a fact-based Mission: Impossible—and, yes, it does all sound too absurdly impossible to be true. Low-key, if thoughtfully stolid, Affleck is Tony Mendez, the CIA undercover agent who dreams up a fantastic plot that could only happen in the movies: Create new identities for the six as Canadians scouting Iranian locations for a phony Hollywood sci-fi fantasy, called Argo, and then spirit them out of the country.
It’s a screwball pitch, but Mendez’s superiors in Washington (including Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) reluctantly take a swing, as do a profane Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin) and a make-up artist (John Goodman), who agree to create a fake production to lend cover to the ruse. The pretext is Affleck’s cue to take a flurry of roundhouse punches at Hollywood, and even himself. (“You can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day,” Arkin snorts.)
Terrio’s wry, lean script (based on an 2007 Wired article by Josh Bearman) is a hairy balancing act, crossbred between Tinseltown satire and topical thriller. Affleck’s casting choices for the drama are boldly non-Hollywood, mostly unknowns who add grit to the life-and-death, documentary-like luster. Along with the shaggy hair and super-sized ‘70s glasses, you may also spy stealth jabs at Star Wars-era American escapism, standing in stark contrast to the dark times that found the U.S. empire at a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate low.
In Argo's sly “meta” metaphors, Affleck isn’t only the film's director, but acts as director of the six players who must pose as Canadians, drilling them for their roles. (Their motivation: um, to live). It will be his impossible mission to lead them through a dress rehearsal, into the airport and out of the country, negotiating a gauntlet of Iranian security agents, like Moses with a movie camera. Unlike the over-the-top special effects and superhuman feats of a Tom Cruise, Affleck and his Argo-nauts do something more improbable—dramatizing real, ordinary human beings forced to do the heroically extraordinary.
As director, Affleck also does something heroic, holding shots to organically draw out the tension and suspense. The conventional (i.e., stale) wisdom in the Hollywood action movie is for breakneck editing that holds the audience hostage, throttling them into submission. Affleck and editor William Goldenberg let the scenes play out, lending to the air of pulse-pounding realism. But Big Ben also gets bogged down in a Directing 101 trick, milking his crosscuts between parallel lines of action to juice up the pulpy intensity.
In a 2012 America seemingly desperate for a patriotic story—and in the midst of interminable Mideast turmoil—Argo reaches back into an ominous dark cloud to yank out a silver lining trimmed in red, white and blue. For Ben Affleck and company, that silver lining may also rain Oscar gold.