Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review: "Argo"

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have heard that Ben Affleck's Argo is the supposed front-runner for Oscar glory. Entertainment blog Gold Derby keeps flip-flopping between Argo and Les Misérables. Until I reluctantly see Tom Hooper's adaptation of the best-ever musical (personal opinion), I cannot stomach the idea of it winning any Oscars. Argo is based on the story of the Canadian Caper, which involved the rescue of six American foreign service workers hiding at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, Iran after fleeing the American Embassy when it was taken over by hostages on November 4, 1979. Affleck's directorial debut was in 1997 with Gone Baby Gone, which featured an Academy Award-nominated performance from Amy Adams (The Wire). The film explored crime culture in Boston. Affleck improved with his second film, The Town (2010), but it was still about the Boston crime culture. Argo leaves contemporary Boston and roots itself in Washington D.C. and Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Affleck definitely has a gift behind the camera, but I am not sure that I can say he brings out the best in his actors. Argo is also Affleck's most conceited film. The story focuses on Tony Mendez (Affleck), the American CIA agent who traveled to Iran to rescue six Americans. So much of the story (and the ridiculous ending) focus on Mendez. Affleck also focuses the camera heavily on his 70s-inspired beard. I wish the story had focused more on the heroic efforts of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador who risked his life for six Americans. The film's postscript was changed after concerns were raised at the Toronto International Film Festival, but the story does not give enough credit. Argo is an incredibly well structured and plotted film. It is definitely deserving of its accolades. Unfortunately, the ending ruins an otherwise great film.

On November 4, 1979 a group of Iranian revolutionaries storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The revolutionaries are protesting the American support of the deposed Shah. The staff of the embassy are taken hostage, but six escape and hide at the Canadian Embassy. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) risks his life to protect these six Americans. Sixty-nine days later, the U.S. State Department starts to explore strategies to help the six escape. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA specialist, is brought in to consult. Inspired after a phone conversation with his son, Mendez and his supervisor (Bryan Cranston) speak to John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood make-up artist. They concoct a plan, along with  film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to scout locations for a science fiction film in Iran. The film, Argo, is a Star Wars wannabe with desert and bazaar locations. Mendez believes his plan is infinitely better than other proposed plans, which include sending bikes and having them bike to the Turkish border. With the go-ahead from the government, Mendez heads to Tehran and meets with the six skeptical Americans. Mendez firmly believes that his plan will work, but only if they are willing to trust him.

Period films are tough to make. It can be tough to convince an audience. There are so many details that have to be accurate: costumes, props, sets. Argo masterfully creates the period of time between 1979 and 1981. The terrible style of clothing and grooming is spot on. I have seen the film twice and both times I thought that it was well paced and offered a thrilling climax. Ben Affleck is a sure-handed director, and even though the outcome of the film is never in question, the scene at the airport is as thrilling a scene as I have witnessed in a long time. Unfortunately Affleck's direction and Chris Terrio's screenplay do not offer the actors a chance to give standout performances. Yes, a film can be great without any standout performances, but a film become extraordinary when it is able to fire on all cylinders (see No Country for Old Men or The Silence of the Lambs). Roger Ebert's four-star review of the film focuses primarily on the craft of film-making. He wonders how the Iranians were unable to foil the plan if the ending was so clear to the audience. Ebert celebrates the role of Hollywood in the film. He also gives credit to the supporting cast. These actors, including Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, and Richard Kind, bring such great talent to their respective roles. I just wish Victor Garber had been allowed to make Ken Taylor more of the Canadian hero that he truly is. Too bad Argo is just another movie that celebrates America.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Argo will find a nomination for Best Picture, but I will eat my words if any single actor is nominated.

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