FILM REVIEW: Argo
Every year a crop of Hollywood buzz movies seems to reflect or at least refract the world around us. In this political year, political films abound. Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Or Lincoln which turns out to be a very timely film about a president fighting a fractious Congress. Which brings us to the big buzz film of the Toronto International Film Festival, Argo.
More than an action film, it's the title that heralded Ben Affleck as the next Clint Eastwood, an actor turned director. Yes, Argo firmly puts to rest any Bennifer jokes. Affleck has grown into a muscular movie-maker with a flair for torquing the tension in a way the late Tony Scott would admire. But Affleck's resemblance to Eastwood doesn't end there. He still carries himself with the natural stature of a leading man, exuding an easy kind of confidence that not even that scraggly beard or mop of '70s hair can hide.Director Ben Affleck on the set of Argo, following in Clint Eastwood's footsteps. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Like Eastwood, Affleck isn't subtle when it comes to Argo's politics. At a time of increased sabre rattling between the United States and Iran, Argo takes us to the heyday of American-Iranian antagonism. The movie is bristling with Islamic revolutionaries, angry young men in thick beards, faces masked by rage. At home, America seethes while yellow ribbons flutter in the wind.
From his choice of film stock to the reappearance of the old Warner logo, it seems as if Affleck is trying to recreate the events around the Iran Hostage crisis as faithfully as possible beginning with his stunning opening scene. The U.S. embassy in Tehran is under siege. With a massive crowd of protesters at the gates, the order is given: "Burn everything." As protestors climb the barricades, the staff inside work furiously destroying everything they can.
As the building is breached, six Americans slip out onto the street and hide at the Canadian ambassador's residence. Canada takes them in, but with Iran piecing together lists of American staff to see who is missing among the hostages, the house guests can't stay forever. Enter Affleck as Tony Mendez, the CIA's ex-fill or exfiltration specialist. The plan is to create a Canadian production company as a cover, using a location scouting trip in Iran as a ruse to get the Americans to the airport and out of the country.
Here Argo splits into two stories. One is a Hollywood satire of sorts as Mendez recruits make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to flesh out his fake film. Flying into L.A. over a decrepit Hollywood sign, we get the sense Lalaland isn't at the height of its powers. The town is still swooning over Star Wars as Mendez picks up a script out Siegel's slush pile -- a space opera with a Middle Eastern setting. Argo is born.
John Goodman as John Chambers and Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel have some fun at Hollywood's expense. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Screenwriter Chris Terrio gets in a couple of jabs at the industry, mainly delivered with zest by Arkin ("You think the Ayatollah's bad, try the WGA.") While the fake film Argo is getting going, the vice is tightening in Iran. Revolutionaries are sniffing at the gates. In the streets American sympathizers hang from cranes, while President Carter drones on in the background.
At one point Affleck overreaches, cross-cutting between a live script-reading of Argo and a prepared statement read by the Islamic revolutionaries. Flashing back and forth between the Blue Wookies (Chewbacca knock-offs) and the righteous anger of the militants feels surreal, but is off-key in a story with lives in the balance.
Once Mendez arrives in Tehran, Argo picks up the already frenetic tempo. The agent has only a few days to prep the staff, turn the Americans into convincing Canadians and get everyone to the airport. Here the script pulls out all the stops. The CIA threatens to pull the plug. The Iranians are beginning to piece together identities for the missing embassy staff. On the home front we're treated to Bryan Cranston as Mendez's CIA senior, who bullies, goads and curses the plan into action in Walter-White-worthy fury. The climax is as brazen as it is effective, finishing in showdown on a tarmac like something out of a Bond film.
As the escapees and the audience collectively exhale, Argo ends by fetishizing the truth, showing how "real" the movie was with a series of photos, contrasting the movie re-creations with actual archive footage. A strange choice considering the screenplay wouldn't survive the same level of scrutiny. As CBC News has reported, Argo diminishes Canada's role in the affair and appears in large part inspired by the Tony Mendez version of events. Yes, Ken Taylor, Canada's former ambassador to Iran, got the last word by authoring a new closing statement which explains how the CIA's involvement "complemented" the efforts of Canada. But that does little to change the tenor of this story which is a patriotic tale of daring-do and Yankee know-how.
While Argo has the look and feel of a film from the mid-'70s, its real roots are in that most classic of American genres, the escape movie. It's a breathless sprint to freedom with Affleck as merciless (and talented) manipulator. It's just unfortunate the details of the real story got lost in the myth-making.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz, Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek and Tate Donovan as Bob Anders in Argo. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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