Saturday, October 13, 2012
Reel Thoughts: Covert Arts
With unprecedented saber-rattling by the Right Wing and End-of-Days predictions about an Iran-based war swirling about, not to mention the disturbing attack on the US Embassy in Libya, Ben Affleck’s enthralling new film Argo takes on a whole new level of significance. After all, how will movie-goers react to seeing Iranian protestors attack and take over the US Embassy in Tehran, taking and abusing the hostages while six employees who escaped are trapped in the British Ambassador’s residence as the Iranian authorities search for them?
Argo is based on the fascinating true story of how a CIA hostage extractor managed to get the Iranian government to allow him into the country thinking that he was a schlocky sci-fi movie director. Once there, his plan was to get the six embassy workers out of Iran by posing as his location scouting crew. Affleck just gets better and better as a director, as he leaves his Boston comfort zone of Gone Baby Gone and The Town for 1979 Iran, DC and Hollywood. Affleck gets the Carter-era period perfect, right down to the horrible hairstyles and even worse clothes. He doesn’t demonize the Iranians any more than they probably deserve based on their actions, and he keeps the action and suspense palpable, even though you may remember or can guess how the mission will work out.
While fifty-two hostages remained prisoners for 444 days, ending only on Ronald Reagan’s inauguration day in 1981, the six diplomats who found refuge with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), had no idea from day to day whether or not they would be found out and subsequently killed. Back in the US, CIA “exfiltration expert” Tony Mendez (Affleck) hit upon an idea so crazy it had to work. Posing as a movie producer and enlisting the help of a Hollywood mogul (Alan Arkin) and make-up guru (John Goodman), Mendez concocts the production of Argo, a Star Wars rip-off that had to be everything but filmed in order to fool the Iranians. With doctored Canadian passports, Mendez was allowed fairly free access to “scout locations” with his team, all of whom were actually the trapped diplomats posing as the screenwriter, director, costume designer, etc. It was very dangerous, and Argo works best when the terrified diplomats are forced to go out in plain sight to prove their stories.
Affleck and Brian Cranston are terrific as the CIA’s finest, while the trapped Americans disappear into their roles perfectly. Try to pick out Clea Duval (But I’m a Cheerleader) or Tate Donovan (Disney’s Hercules). Arkin and Goodman bring much-appreciated humor to the dark adventure, but it is the story that keeps you intrigued. American actions by President Carter threaten to blow the operation, but Argo is a rousing adventure docudrama that earns its thrills. By the end, you are almost sorry that we never saw the actual movie “Argo” on screen.
But, as Arkin’s Lester Siegel says to a nosy reporter who asks him what Argo is about, he replies “Ar-go f*** yourself!”
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.