Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Thriller In Tehran: Argo Review



ARGO (2012)

I have long argued that as an actor, Ben Affleck makes a great director.  Affleck has had a bad run of films, mostly because he goes for projects that appeal to his own vanity and quixotic belief in his own acting prowess as opposed to things that are actually good. In the case of the former, there was Daredevil.  In the case of the latter, there was The Sum of All Fears.  In the case of both, there was Pearl Harbor.   Affleck has been the author of his own destruction in terms of on-screen popularity.  He is basically box-office poison. 

However, he is someone who has emerged from Gigli to become one of the best directors around.  Gone Baby Gone was a brilliant debut and a showcase for his (I'd argue more talented acting-wise) brother Casey.  His next film, The Town, was well-directed, but had one flaw: Ben Affleck decided to be the central character.  Argo, his third feature as a director, has the best and worst of Ben Affleck: the best in that it has him direct, the worst in that it has him as the lead (and more on that later).  Argo, however, is Affleck's best film yet: one that moves brilliantly and tells its gripping story in a "you are there" style that is riveting, tense, and even on occasion, funny.

After a brief history lesson setting up the story, we go to Tehran, 1979.  The Islamic Revolution has overthrown the Shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini in power.  Iran demands the return of the dying former monarch to stand trial.  The United States has given him asylum, making the future "Great Satan" highly unpopular.  In a fit of orchestrated fury, Iranians storm the American embassy.  In the ensuing chaos, six embassy staff manage to escape and manage to take refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).  Since the Americans have shredded so many documents, including staff records, the Iranians have no way of immediately knowing exactly how many Americans there actually were inside.  Now, 69 days into the crisis, it's been decided the 'houseguests' should be spirited out of Iran before the revolutionaries become aware that they are short some Americans.

Now the question is HOW to get the six out.  Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), CIA extractor.  The suggestions to get the six out of Iran will not work, but Mendez can't think of anything either.  That is, until while on the phone with his son, he catches a Planet of the Apes movie, and then it comes to him: he will get the Americans out by masquerading them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction movie.

It's an insane idea, but the one that is available. 

With that, Mendez goes to Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who has done work for the CIA.  Along with producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), they decide to make the world think they are all starting a new film, Argo, a Star Wars rip-off.  We now have the chips all set up, and Mendez, under the alias Kevin Harkins, goes to Iran to start this desperate scheme.

Will it come off?  Will the Revolutionary Guards eventually literally piece together the pieces (the Iranians using children to put the shredded documents back together)?  Will the houseguests be able to get away? 

What do YOU think?

Argo, based on Joshua Bearman's article Escape From Tehran, maintains a brilliant balance between the tension of Mendez's plan and of what is going on in Tehran.  Affleck, along with editor William Goldenberg, showcase this brilliantly with the scene where the table reading for Argo is taking place at the same time we are shown how the American hostages are living out their own real-life horror.  Again and again we are taken to the houseguests and to the Iranians, never losing focus on the fact that the hostage crisis wasn't just relegated to the six Americans who had managed to escape, but also to the others enduring a horror.

Affleck as a director has understood that what builds tension is in how the audience is presented the information.  The best example of this is when the six and Mendez are at the Tehran airport.  We've already been informed that they have to go through several steps in order to just board the plane, and in each one we see something that can stumble their escape.  To throw in more tension, we have the American side desperate to validate their flights out, the Hollywood connection being kept from the phone that will be used to verify Mendez's cover, and most tense of all, when the Iranians finally realize that six Americans have escaped their net and soon track them down to the Tehran airport. 

Affleck builds on each of these moments, with the final moments juxtaposing the Swiss Air flight taxing down the runway while the Revolutionary Guards are in a mad rush to stop it, with only Mendez aware they are being pursued.  Even once they take off, there is no celebrating, with the seven wary of the speaker which might announce that the plane is to return.  It isn't until the stewardess picks up the speaker to announce that alcohol can now be served as they have left Iranian airspace that they (and us) can breathe a sigh of total relief.

Chris Terrio's screenplay works overall, always keeping the tension building and growing (perhaps too much by the end, but a smooth exit would have been anti-climatic).  It also has the intelligence, as I've stated before, of keeping the stories tied together: we get scenes of the houseguests arguing among themselves and moments of Hollywood humor.  I would take issue with the idea that we need to know about Mendez's personal problems with his family being of great importance.  Once the hostages are outside Iran, the denouement appears to be stretched out.

However, in this I would say Argo is not different than The Town.  Affleck has a hard time ending a film, instead keeping things going when perhaps we could have wrapped things up sooner.

In terms of performances, I can say that Ben Affleck does his best job in a long time.  That isn't to say it's a great performance: he still thinks looking forlorn means giving a deep performance.  As in The Town, he is the weakest thing in the movie.

Affleck, to his credit, can direct all his other actors.  Goodman and Arkin prove a great comic duo, unimpressed with Hollywood and conscious of their role in helping American escape certain death.  Bryan Cranston, as Mendez's supervisor, remains one of the best actors working today (and forgiven for Total Recall).  His frustration at the government's lack of enthusiasm for the plan and its nearly-botched plans marked an intense performance.

While Alexander Desplat's score was appropriate to the subject (Desplat weaving a vaguely Middle Eastern-style into the music), I don't think it is the most memorable aspect of Argo, but the music was well-written.  Great credit should also be given to the art direction and costuming, which rendered the 1970s look (bad hair and all) brilliantly.  The attention to detail is yet another sign that Ben Affleck as a director has truly come of age.                  

The ONE thing that pushes Argo down for me is the lead.  It's not just that Affleck is simply not a good actor (although that's a small part of it).  It is the fact that Ben Affleck cast himself as a HISPANIC character and apparently thought no one would notice the difference!  This troubles me intensely.  I have long written about the lack of Hispanics in front and behind the camera.  It is one thing to see that as the Hispanic population grows, the Hispanic representation shrinks.  It's another to see non-Hispanics play Hispanics, while Hispanic actors are relegated to stereotypes (if they are given parts at all).

We now have a situation where a real-life Hispanic cannot be portrayed by a real-life Hispanic.  It was one thing when Guy Gabaldon, the Pied Piper of Saipan, was played by Tab Hunter in Hell to Eternity, but there is a difference.  Hell to Eternity was made in 1960.  Argo was made in 2012.  How Affleck, a man who prides himself on his high intelligence and political activism, can justify denying a part to a minority when the part calls for a minority is truly beyond me.  My thinking tells me that he believes HE, Benjamin Geza Affleck, should be the star of a Ben Affleck picture, ethnically correct casting be damned.

Ultimately, after a lot of struggle, I opted to grant Argo a high score despite this blatant insult to the Hispanic community because I think Touch of Evil is a brilliant film despite Charlton Heston's efforts to pass for a Mexican.  I severely criticize the casting of Heston (and his horrifying make-up) in Touch of Evil, but I think he gave a solid performance and Touch of Evil is a brilliant film.  Likewise, I think Argo is a brilliant film, except Affleck didn't give a brilliant performance, just a typical Ben Affleck one.  As much as I detest the casting of non-Hispanics in Hispanic roles (Affleck following in the footsteps of Wallace Beery and Marlon Brando playing Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata), I can't argue that Argo is anything other than a well-crafted film.      


DEAD RINGER for Ben Affleck.

DECISION: A-  

2013 Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

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