Friday, October 12, 2012

Argo: The best film Hollywood never made

Argo (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.12.12

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

The events depicted in Argo wouldn’t be believed in a novel; the wild ’n’ crazy premise defies credibility. And yet this bizarre CIA mission actually took place during the Iranian hostage crisis; indeed, it was a rare burst of sunlight during the 444 grim days that Islamist students and militants held 52 captives in Tehran’s American Embassy.

Makeup expert John Chambers (John Goodman, left) and veteran Hollywood mogul
Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, center) understand the complexity of what CIA operative
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) has proposed: the fabrication of a Hollywood movie,
complete with script and publicity campaign (note the background poster). The ersatz
film must appear to be genuine ... because lives will depend on that charade.
Argo can be placed alongside 1995’s Apollo 13, as a thoroughly engrossing drama that loses none of its tension despite our knowing the outcome. Chris Terrio’s script blends established fact with third-act dramatic license and some unexpectedly droll dialogue; yes, it’s possible to derive humor from these life-and-death events.

The package is assembled with directorial snap by Ben Affleck, who also grants himself the plum role of Antonio “Tony” Mendez, the CIA “exfil” (exfiltration) specialist charged with a real-life impossible mission. Affleck — as director — capably introduces the key players and sets up the plot elements, slides into a scheme as audacious as any caper thriller ever concocted by Hollywood, and then tightens the screws until the tension is unbearable.

The film opens with a prologue, depicted in movie-style storyboards, that outlines the post-WWII American “meddling” that restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power in Iran in 1953. Although a well-protected monarch for the next quarter-century, the Shah was recognized in his own country as little more than an American puppet; he eventually was deposed in February 1979 by a revolution that led to the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The fractured relationship between the United States and Iran worsened as that year progressed, then splintered entirely when the despised Shah — ill with cancer — was admitted to the United States for treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Two weeks later, on Nov. 4, an enraged mob broke through the American Embassy gates, stormed the building and orchestrated the stand-off that kept us — and much of the world — glued to news channels for the next 14 months.

Affleck begins his film at this point, immediately hitting us with feelings of horror and helplessness: Nothing has improved in the meanwhile. Here we are, in 2012, and there’s absolutely no doubt that Taliban terrorists would attempt the same bold act, given the opportunity. The only apparent change is that Islamic extremism and religious intolerance have grown even worse.

The powder-keg build-up to the embassy storming is deeply unsettling, the American efforts at damage control — and document destruction — akin to spitting in the wind. Then comes the detail often forgotten when we recall these ghastly events: Although the aforementioned 52 Americans are captured quickly, six others manage to slip away in the confusion; they’re given shelter — and concealment — in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).

The situation is precarious: The Iranians soon realize that the six embassy people are missing, although their identities remain unknown ... for the moment.

Back in the States, Mendez is summoned by Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), the assistant deputy director of the CIA. Mendez watches as various analysts, having been made aware of the six stranded Americans, blue-sky some truly ludicrous rescue suggestions, each one dumber than the last. (You gotta love the plan to bicycle out of Iran.)

Then Mendez uncorks something even more audacious.

“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” he’s incredulously asked.

“This is the best bad idea we have,” Mendez replies. “By far.”

Affleck gives that line just the right reading. It’s funny ... but our laughter is strained, because we recognize the need for desperate measures.

Mendez understands a core truth: Everybody bends over backwards for a film crew on a location shoot, even during times of political crisis. Mendez also has an ace up his sleeve: an association with John Chambers, a veteran Hollywood makeup specialist who won an honorary Academy Award in 1968, for his work on Planet of the Apes, and also exercised his extensive talents on television’s original Star Trek.

On the side, unknown to his Tinseltown friends, Chambers also applied his skills to governmental intelligence operations.

Chambers is played, with oversized verve, by John Goodman. It’s a plum role to begin with, and Terrio feeds the actor plenty of deliciously snarky dialogue. Indeed, Goodman would run away with the film, were it not for the third key player in what becomes a fascinating Hollywood charade: Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a legendary movie mogul brought in to legitimize the plan.

Arkin and Goodman may be the best Mutt ’n’ Jeff tag team ever caught on camera; they’re simply hilarious together, even as events in Iran escalate from tense to nail-biting.

Siegel is Terrio’s one fabrication: a composite character drawn from various movie colony types. Although Siegel is considered past his sell-by date, he’s no less feisty and committed to the power of The Big Lie. And the scheme is heaven-sent to such a colorful, blustery individual: Siegel’s last big hurrah will be a film that doesn’t really exist ... but could save six lives.

Because that’s what Argo is: a wholly fabricated Studio Six science-fiction spectacular and “cosmic conflagration,” set on a distant, arid planet, which blends the then-ubiquitous formula of spaceships, aliens, action and stalwart young heroes rescuing otherworldly maidens. If this wholly fictitious production can be granted the imprimatur of authenticity, then Mendez can fly into Iran — as a Studio Six co-producer — and return with the six members of his Canadian location-scouting film crew.

Simply, utterly mad.

Affleck (as director) and editor William Goldenberg smoothly cut between simultaneous events: the Hollywood efforts to raise awareness of Argo and Studio Six; the fraying nerves of the six Americans who dare not be seen outside Ambassador Taylor’s home; and the massive Iranian effort to piece together shredded documents, in order to identify those same six people.

Since Mendez initially is surrounded by such flamboyant actors — Cranston’s O’Donnell is just as richly theatrical as Arkin and Goodman — Affleck wisely modulates his performance in the other direction. His take on Mendez is cool and collected: a patch of calm in an otherwise turbulent ocean. It’s a crucial reading, because it lends conviction to Mendez’s insistence — when he eventually outlines this crazy scheme to the six dubious Americans — that yes, he can pull this off.

These embassy employees, initially little more than a terrified group, soon emerge as distinct individuals reacting in various ways to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Affleck (again, as director) needs them to remain credibly ordinary, to emphasize their vulnerability, and he gets excellent performances from all six: Tate Donovan, as Bob Anders, the de facto leader; Scoot McNairy, as Joe Stafford, the only one fluent in Farsi; Kerry Bishé, as Joe’s wife, Kathy; Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall, as Mark and Cora Lijek; and Rory Cochrane, as Lee Schatz.

The film is authentic to its late 1979/early ’80 setting, with meticulous detail paid by production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacquiline West. Hairstyles, as well, are very much a product of this era. The disconnect is startling, at times; because this hostage crisis represented such a turning point in American history — a long-overdue shattering of naïve imperialism — Ambassador Taylor’s six “guests” often look and sound as if they stepped out of TV’s Leave It to Beaver. Could we ever, as a nation, have been so arrogantly dense?

Apparently so.

Affleck and Terrio build to a stunner of a third act, and here the split-second timing begins to feel a bit Hollywood-esque. But you’re unlikely to care; when the overall package is this accomplished, it’s easy to forgive minor detours from the path of absolute truth.

The entire operation remained top secret until declassified in 1997 by President Clinton; I’m amazed it took this long for a film to be made, particularly since Mendez described the events in his 2000 book, Master of Disguise. (I’m also raising an intrigued eyebrow over the similarly themed but wholly fictitious Wag the Dog, released in 1997 but obviously in production long before that. Serendipity can be ... interesting.)

In five short years, and over the course of three films — starting with Gone Baby Gone and The Town — Affleck has demonstrated increasingly skilled directorial chops. Argo is the sort of industry-themed project that inevitably draws Oscar attention; that would be another well-deserved feather in the cap of the talented writer/director/producer/actor who first hit our radar when he shared an Academy Award for scripting Good Will Hunting.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.

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