Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flick of the Day: Argo

The Tehran hostage crisis is one of the darker days of American history, indeed one of many such days in the course of American policy toward Iran before and after the fall of the Shah in 1979. For those unfamiliar, at the height of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, antipathy toward America spilled over as a group of zealous students stormed the embassy taking the staff hostage and threatening to execute them unless the hated Shah was returned to Iran to face trial. The hostage crisis lasted 444 days and directly contributed to the downfall of Jimmy Carter at the 1980 Presidential Election. That's the tale written in the history books however the lesser known story is that on the day the embassy fell six Americans escaped through a back door and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Today's flick of the day is the story of how those people escaped.
The film opens with CIA operative Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, being asked to review the State Department's plan for bringing their 6 diplomats out of Tehran under the noses of the Islamic regime as an expert in the area. He is so appalled at the dangerous stupidity and lack of foresight that he offers to come up with a plan at the behest of his boss played by Bryan Cranston. He quickly comes up with the idea of a fake film crew on location to scout for a new movie as a cover story to get the diplomats out. Thankfully the agency already has a contact in Hollywood in the form of John Goodman's make-up artist John Chambers. In an entertaining fashion, Goodman  takes through the ins and outs of the film business. Before long they have hired ageing producer Lester Siegel, played by the great Alan Arkin and are the road to making a film. They buy a low budget sci-fi script called Argo and set up a production company complete with business cards and an office. After a full page spread in Variety and a launch party, Mendez is on on his way to Iran to sneak the diplomats out. The tension begins to build as the full horrors of the revolution are revealed and the subterfuge begins to unravel.
Around the turn of the Noughties, Ben Affleck's career was in disarray after a string of poor films like Jersey Girl, Gigli and Paycheck. However over the last few years, he has matured into one of the most talented young actor/directors in Hollywood. Argo is his third effort as a director and builds on his previously strong work with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. From the get go, the film exudes the style and music of the era, that brief period at the end of the 1970's before the dawn of the Reagan 80's. As Tony and Chambers pass through the gates of a Hollywood studio, the Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits segues in. Everything feels of the era and there are some great stylistic flourishes which reinforce this sense of realism. The hardest part of making a period film like this is being true to the era and Affleck accomplishes this with aplomb.
Of course he is aided by a great script by Chris Terrio that is at times very funny and entertaining as it pokes fun at the fakery of the real Hollywood and at other times deadly serious as the tension mounts in Tehran. This tension is the real joy of the movie, it becomes almost unbearable as the film reaches its dramatic conclusion and I found myself on the edge of my seat at times. Affleck has created another triumph of a film.
                     In this regard, special attention must be made of the various fine performances, not least from Affleck himself. He is blessed with a male cast to die for in Arkin, Goodman and Cranston, some of the best actors working in Hollywood today. The most difficult roles are I think played by the 6 hostages to fortune stuck in Tehran as they are given little more than cursory back stories and they have to really work as actors to make us care about them.
Overall then, this is a very fine film and perhaps Affleck's best and most mature picture to date. I await his next move with interest. This is a definite contender for an Oscar in my mind if only for the near perfect rendition of an era that perhaps America would prefer to forget.

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