Monday, December 17, 2012

"Argo": review

While in Fredericksburg to visit my buddy Mike and his family, I had the chance to see Ben Affleck's earnest film "Argo" last night. One of the first things that leaped out at me was the fact that, for Affleck, this was a labor of love. You can see it in every frame.* And as other reviewers have noted, Affleck has shown himself to be a more than adequate director. His style, which combines the unpretentious camera work of Clint Eastwood with the vérité feel of "All the President's Men," simply allows the story to unfold before us.

The movie's plot was also laced with humorous cynicism, mostly about the movie industry; as Mike noted, it's always cool to see Hollywood poke fun at itself. The story of "Argo" is told in a straightforward manner: in November of 1979, six Americans quietly escape the US embassy compound at the beginning of the infamous hostage crisis and take refuge at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, not knowing what to do next. The CIA, aware of the Americans' plight, mulls over several "exfil" (exfiltration) scenarios, but it's Tony Mendez (Affleck himself) who proposes entering Iran in the guise of a moviemaker scouting a location for a nonexistent sci-fi movie called "Argo." The idea is to give fake Canadian IDs and filmmaker credentials to the Americans in hiding, and then to get everyone out on a Swissair flight, right under the noses of over a hundred Iranian security staffers. The action jumps from Iran to Hollywood to Langley, Virginia; Mendez has recruited makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, at the top of his game) to help make this exfil a reality, while Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) quarterbacks from CIA headquarters.

"Argo" is very good at maintaining suspense, despite the fact that most audience members cognizant of recent history will know how the story ends. While watching "Argo," I was often reminded of Clint Eastwood's underrated "Firefox" (based on Craig Thomas's novel of the same name), in which the phrase "Your papers are not in order" has never been more chilling. Much of "Argo" is, in fact, devoted to long, tense shots of people waiting to see whether they've passed through a security threshold. Will the fake passports pass muster? Will the nervous Yank-- who speaks Farsi and doesn't believe in Mendez's plan-- give the game away? Will the missing disembarkation chits prevent the group from leaving?

Conservative viewers of the film grumble about the way in which Americans are made to seem the guilty parties, as if the hostage situation were America's fault. They also complain about the Jimmy Carter voiceover at the end of the film, in which Carter tells us that the other fifty American hostages were eventually brought home safe and sound (after 444 days in captivity), and with America's "integrity" uncompromised-- a debatable contention at best. My feeling is that Hollywood isn't about to give anything other than the leftist point of view a fair shake, so there's little reason to grouse: the Carter voiceover is an unsurprising coda. And speaking of codas: the ending credits include still photos of the movie's cast juxtaposed with the actual six Americans involved in the "Canadian Caper," along with images of Tony Mendez and Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador at the time. The actors are striking in their resemblance to their real-life counterparts.

Affleck's labor of love has already won him near-universal plaudits among reviewers both big and small. It's a good film, and it wouldn't shock me to learn that Affleck and the rest of the cast** and crew of "Argo" might be up for some major awards. Personally, I'd single out Alan Arkin for his "Ocean's Eleven"-style brio, verve, élan, and gleeful chutzpah.

*Other labors of love by star-directors would be Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" and Robert Duvall's incredible "The Apostle."

**I couldn't help noticing that "Argo" included half the cast of "24"!



Charles said...

I don't know if I talked with you about Argo... I don't think I did. I saw it a while back, when the only place we could find it still playing here was at an art cinema in Daehangno. I enjoyed it very much.

I'm working on an "initial review" of the Hobbit, which will probably go up tonight, to be followed later by a longer "spoilerific review" (which you can skip until you see the film).

Kevin Kim said...

I think you had recommended, in a comment a while back, that I go see "Argo." It was thoroughly enjoyable; thanks for the recommendation. I'm pretty sure, though, that Affleck Hollywoodized the ending, with the Iranian police vehicles almost catching the Swissair jet.

What got me about that scene was the shot in which we see the plane actually lifting off while the police cars are keeping pace. A 747's takeoff speed is around 170 mph; if the plane were smaller, like a 727, the takeoff speed would be roughly 130-150 mph. Could the cars really have been traveling that fast on the runway? Well, a souped-up police vehicle might be able to make 150, I suppose...

Charles said...

Heh, yeah, that last bit was a bit over-the-top. And yet even as I sat there thinking, "There's no way it was that close," I was still enjoying it.

HJ pointed out afterward that they never would have escaped if there had been cellphones back then.

Kevin Kim said...

I was thinking the same thing HJ was. With modern technology in place in Iran, this escape would never have worked. Another buddy of mine, Sam, goes by "the cell-phone rule," i.e., a story isn't worth telling if cell phones can be used to resolve its problems. Kind of a harsh standard, but not a bad way to pare down one's movie choices.