Monday, November 12, 2012

Argo, the Science Fiction Film That Wasn't

Argo is the third Ben Affleck-directed film I’ve seen, and I’m impressed.  I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck the actor.  He’s there and not there; my eye and ear pass him by.  But as a director and writer (don't forget Good Will Hunting) he’s getting my attention.  I’m interested in watching what he’s done, learning his point of view.  Affleck has found his place, behind the camera, and so many wonderful actors are in this film that I think Hollywood and its actors have figured it out.  From the screenplay he wrote and directed based on Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone to The Town to Argo, Affleck has become an actor’s director to watch.

Argo is loosely based on the very real, front-page news of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  While the Iranian revolutionaries took hostage everyone in the embassy, six Americans slipped out of the compound and found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (a reserved and realistic performance by the always thoughtful Victor Garber), where they lived (sometimes under the floorboards) for three months.  CIA operative Tony Mendez, a.k.a. Kevin Harkness (played with quiet intensity by the director Ben Affleck) came up with a hare-brained scheme to smuggle them out of the country as a Canadian film crew working on a Hollywood science fiction movie.  This highly unlikely scenario worked — that truth is so often stranger than fiction may be the best part of a good story.

The six hidden escapees became known in the halls of the U.S. government as the “Houseguests.”  Their story is an engrossing one in which the audience can give a damn about everybody. Argo is a riveting two hours.  This level of tension is extraordinary in light of the fact that we already know how it turned out. 

“Harkness” calls on friends in Hollywood to help him set up the background for his plan. Alan Arkin is seriously hilarious as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, who’s still got at the least chutzpah.  John Goodman reminds us what a fine straight man he is as the great make-up artist John Chambers.  These two men use their usually more frivolous professions to fabricate a false reality to cover the CIA story.  The Hollywood scenes of this conspiracy tickle us as the old pros set the P.R. wheels in motion to make the science fiction film “Argo” appear to be a real Hollywood movie.  That the Press believed — and therefore published — that this film within the film was a real movie was essential to the escape plan.  These efforts include a fashion show of a “table reading” of the absurd script with actors in costume and alien make-up to promote the film that would never be made.  A highlight of this was the appearance of Adrienne Barbeau as an oversexed Hollywood has-been cast as a galactic witch.  Inside jokes, yes, but it’s still great stuff.
Goodman as Chambers, Arkin as Siegel, and Affleck as Mendez/Harkness  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures

In contrast, the scenes in Washington, DC, are frustrating and infuriating, showing us men who all look alike repeating tired old ideas, plans that were used thirty years before.  The “suits” were as we expected them to be:  short sighted bureaucrats that almost derail the mission.  Bryan Cranston is Affleck’s supportive boss Jack O’Donnell.  He growls, he reins himself in to play the politics, until he cannot stop himself from blasting the desk jockeys when they make the wrong call.  All the DC characters are played by experienced and recognizable actors, from a tired-looking Kyle Chandler, to Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall, Keith Szarabajka and Zeljko Ivanek, and more.  While each one has only snippets of scenes to play — Mr. Affleck may have expected the American public to remember who those politicos were, which is a naive error — the actors are good enough to be spot on without any background provided for the audience.
Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

In the nail-biting scenes set in Iran, the actors cast as the Houseguests appeared remarkably similar to the actual people, only partly due to the ministrations of an expert hair and make-up crew.  Even better, the acting was so intense and realistic they could have been those people.  With straightforward characterizations, they created living people in a crisis situation — warts and all.  Kudos to (clockwise from the bottom front): 

-         Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek
-         Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford 
-         Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford
-         Tate Donovan as Bob Anders
-         Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz
-         Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek

The Houseguests.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.
 As Ambassador Taylor’s courageous and gracious wife Pat, Page Leong allowed us to see her fear of discovery under a graceful diplomatic facade.  As the ambassador’s maid, Sahar, Sheila Vand showed quiet strength and compassion.

Editor William Goldenberg and director Affleck kept the screenplay by Chris Terrio (based on an article by Joshuah Bearman) terse and tight. Every objection of the “houseguests” themselves, each procrastination, every hold-up in Washington or the airport, induced an internal scream.  I’d long since finished my popcorn before the last 15 minutes and found myself twisting and crushing the bag that had held it. By the end I bit onto the crumpled paper bag as if to keep from crying out when…well I wouldn’t want to throw in a spoiler.

Reports on this secret mission (declassified in 1997) are doubtless thousands of pages long.  It takes skill to tell the story as briskly as Argo does in less than two hours.  For all that, it is a movie, not a documentary.  Those who point out shortcuts and inaccuracies are missing the point.  I recommend this film for its sharp story-telling, its fine acting (including by those who never speak a word) and editing. Though home screens these days are two or three times the size of those sets on which some of us watched “Nightline” reports about the hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, the truly big screens remain the best place to see this one.  Go to the movies and have a good time. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to plan my next escape ….

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