Argo - A Heartpounding and Historical "Fake Picture"

                           Iran, 1979: 52 American Embassy employees in Tehran were held captive for 444 days by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran's afflicting longtime ruler, the shah, fled for asylum in the US. Six members of the 52 employees escaped and took secret refuge in the Canadian embassy, fearing for their lives while mobs raged outside and the military police searched everywhere for Americans in Tehran. The top-secret activities from the Canadian government and the CIA led to the rescue of six escaped Americans. But, how were they rescued when US citizens are the favorites for Ayatollah’s popular punishment of public be-headings in the square. After 18 years, in 1998, the details of rescue effort were declassified and "Argo" gives us the gripping story of how Hollywood helped to save those people. 

                    Six years before no one could have believed that, Ben Affleck -- not so good actor -- will become a good director.  With "Argo", Affleck demonstrates his behind-the-camera muscles in a location other than his native Boston, the setting of his previous directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). Just when we thought that the political thriller genre is dying, Argo  jumps through every hoop the naysayer can set up. It is ingeniously written drama extracted from a fascinating, little-known chapter of recent history. It is also a rousing popcorn movie, which offers plenty of edge-of-the-seat thrills as well as funnier scenes than you’d ever imagine possible in the grim context of the Iran hostage crisis.

        When the angry militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran most of the embassy staff members hurried to destroy files, while six Americans slipped out a side door and found shelter in the residence of the brave Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). In U.S., a phone rings and a bearded Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) stirs into action.He is an extractor. Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), the CIA director calls him when there is a rescue situation. Though he's never left anyone behind, the difficulties have never been greater than they are in extracting these people from revolutionary Iran. The main obstacle is that there is no viable reason why a half-dozen Americans would be wandering Tehran in this political climate.

                   Mendez comes up with a audacious plan. With the aid of veteran Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Tony sets up a production company for a cheesy sci-fi movie called Argo, secure a script and preliminary story board drawings, and con the Hollywood press into printing stories about the planned production before heading to Iran. Mendez's plan is to make the six Americans look like a Canadian movie crew who've been scouting locations in the Middle East for their sci-fi adventure film. 

                 Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez with a shaggy hair and beard gives a performance, which is curiously muted and shows little in the way of emotion. As a professional in a dangerous job that involves life and death, it's good that they hadn’t tried to cram in a long back-story involving his estranged wife and son to give him more color. Some may find Mendez, a bit too distant, but it works in terms of the story and the character. As  a director Affleck works the material for maximum impact, mainly by keeping the movie's tension at a constant pitch. The embassy take-over is shot with a documentary-like intensity, framing many of his shots to replicate well-known photographs from the era. His tonal shifts are so flawless, considering that this is only his third movie as a director. The violence is contained and the action sequences never overrides Affleck's sense of dramatic understatement.

                  Affleck is helped by the workman-like performances of his impressive supporting cast. He has also chosen low-profile actors for the six main roles, which is effective and they somehow resemble the real-life characters (closing-credits montage shows to what lengths Affleck has gone to re-create the real-life places and people of “Argo”). "Breaking Bad" fame Bryan Cranston brings a world-weary professionalism to his role of CIA director. Veteran actors Goodman and Alan Arkin play up the comedy as Hollywood insiders while also entitling them through their own willingness and personal sacrifice to use their finely tuned art in order to save lives, rather than make huge profits. Arkin deserves the Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his turn as composite character Siegel. 

                   The stupendous script by Chris Terrio accounts an admirable mastery of vast details. It also averts from caricaturing the Iranian extremists or their beliefs. Rodrigo Prieto's 80's style cinematography prefers warm, natural colors even in the grayness of government offices. Argo was given a R-rating because of the few time use of f word (the f word is used as part of a running gag). Apart from this relatively inoffensive profanity, there is nothing "inappropriate" for teenagers. The film-makers should be praised for not compromising and making the minor cuts necessary to get a PG-13.   The film rewrites the real events in the climax part, but that change not only makes for a thrilling conclusion, it also suggests that Iranians were at least as smart as Mendez. 

                   With seven Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe for Best Drama Picture, "Argo" was one of the best films of 2012 and a sure-fire contender on Oscar night. It has a great narrative arc, artistic responsibility and entertainment value. It is a nail-biter of the highest order.


Argo - IMDb

1 comment:

desi Traveler said...

Whenever I watch or read about such movies I remember
'Wag the Dog"