Argo (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Argo (2012)

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I snuggled into my seat and as soon as the lights dimmed the air in the theater drew sharp as Ben Affleck recreated the 1979 storming of the American embassy in Iran.  For the next ten minutes I could not move and was afraid to close my eyes.  Affleck did not suggest for one second that there was going to be escape, history or no, as his camera searched desperately through the mob and the building for an exit point.

Finally, in a moment of pure luck, six of the embassy employees burst out into the street and what freedom they've found seems of small comfort.  The film stock is harsh and grainy but sharp as the bit of natural light they encounter is more a threat than an opportunity for escape.  Debris is everywhere, those few Iranians not in the loop of what happened look at them suspiciously, and finally they find some meager safehouse.  Just when the question of how they are going to get home is brought up Affleck brings up the title card, Argo, and gives us hope even though we have no idea what it means yet.

I could feel the confidence bristling onscreen and see the evidence all around me as the other patrons in the auditorium finally took the title as a chance to breathe.  The next two hours worked their emotional trickery with the same steady hand and not a single moment of it wavered.  Argo is an event, and while you might still love it alone on the couch, please do everything you can to go share this amazing experience in a theater.  I'm barely started into this review and I'd love to meet anyone for a second round with this movie.

Few scenes go the way you would expect, even with a gun set to go off in seconds.

Argo's story is rooted in irony about how America treats its heroes.  During the opening sequence explaining what led to the Iranian hostage crisis, it explains how American leadership had deposed the previous regime and installed a new ruthless one that Americans would not return after seeking asylum in the US.  The mission that encompasses the brunt of Argo was frowned on, almost cancelled for a military strike, and the truth unknown until Clinton declassified the record in 1997.  So the film is about events American leadership contributed to, whose heroic actions would not be acknowledged until well after the events are over with because of that involvement.

In a way, this sobering backdrop regarding history helps make the almost too strange to be true story more palatable.  The six who managed to escape are hiding in the Canadian embassy with no real avenue for escape as now every Iranian in the country is looking for them.  The CIA is brainstorming ways to get them out and not having much success (bicycle routes that cover 300 miles of territory, disguising them as teachers when there are no foreign tutors left) when Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) has a stroke of insight watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  In the years after Star Wars everyone around the world was craving new science-fiction films and so many were being produced for so cheap, why not just pass the six off as a film crew?

Enter John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).  Chambers won a special Academy Award for his work on the makeup for the Planet of the Apes series and Siegel is a producer who is shoveling out sci-fi as fast as he can.  Their intent is to add an air of legitimacy to the mission but Affleck uses it as a way to comment on the state of Hollywood at that time.  Studios are decaying and the big Hollywood sign is almost completely fallen down.  The kooky rebels of the '70s have long left the picture, and all that's left are people willing to shovel out as much dreck as possible with little interest in the art.  Affleck utilizes these time-specific details without allowing them to overwhelm his film.

The pessimistic comedy duo of Arkin and Goodman that always manages to wring a laugh, even if you want to kick yourself afterward.

These moments showcase Affleck's sturdy hand at directing as well as Chris Terrio's tight screenplay.  After a solid thirty minutes of terror and despair the world finally opens up to a laugh.  Affleck steadies the camera and allows a smoother stock to photograph their artificial world.  Things are still as harsh, but at least they've entered a terrain where the fakes are king even as the world outside is going to hell.  Not a bad commentary on the state of studio direction going into the '80s, and one that serves the film well as it travels back into Iran where that becomes literally true as the survival of the six hinges on that fiction.

The performances are similarly flawless.  Affleck is onscreen for most of the film and does a terrific job of anchoring us to each moment, no matter how dark or ridiculous it becomes.  Bryan Cranston, as Affleck's superior, finally gets to bring some of the authority he is capable of to moments where he convincingly growls at his own boss to "Do your fucking job!"  Goodman and Arkin are a treat, as always, but play their duo as a bit of nihilistic Laurel and Hardy comedy at times, eliciting some dark chuckles.

Argo works on so many levels that the ultimate artistic commentary is almost lost by pure virtue of how well everything else works.  It's the single most perfectly crafted film of the year, from Affleck's direction to William Goldenberg's editing.  The film is also coming at a delicate time with our own foreign affairs looking a bit bleak, but still carries a lesson from the past about the danger of assuming control of others' affairs in the future.

As it closed, I felt elated.  On top of all the craft and near-perfection on display it still chose to leave a poignant message about the communicative power of art and acknowledgement that these stories may never be told.  Argo is adventurous, terrifying, funny, powerful and, at long last, quietly reflective.  It is easily one of the best films of 2012.

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Argo (2012)

Directed by Ben Affleck.
Screenplay by Chris Terrio.
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.

Posted by Andrew

Filed under: 2012, Like Leave a comment
Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I’ve seen it twice … and yes. Everything you said.

  2. Excellent writing Andrew. One of the best reviews of Argo that I’ve read. Thanks for that. 🙂

  3. I love the movie and your review but am dying to ask this question. Who belongs to the magic hands that made Ben Aflack into that sexy man I just watched for a few hours. I couldn’t believe it was him! I had to google to wrap my head around it. -This post typed but not approved by Ben Aflack. Key Grip Ben Afleck Decision to use a mobile phone to text -Ben Afleck My mood tomorrow and in the future by Ben Afleck. 😉

    • Heh, thank you for the comment Karen! The beard certainly works for him here, but the crown champ for Affleck beefcake still has to be The Town. I swear he lit his abs individually during his workout scene.

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