Friday, October 5, 2012

Ben Affleck Reaches For The Best Picture/Best Director Oscars With Argo

The Good: Pacing, Mood, Plot, Characters, Acting!
The Bad: Too many moments of frenetic camera work/audio fallout
The Basics: Argo tells the story of the six American hostages during the Iranian hostage crisis who made it to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and the drastic and incredible lengths the C.I.A. went to the get them back, virtually assuring Ben Affleck Oscar nominations!

There are very few films I allow myself to get excited about anymore. So far, this year, I managed to keep my cool and limit my excitement to two films: Prometheus (reviewed here!) and The Dark Knight Rises (reviewed here!). But when I saw the first trailer for Argo, I found something unexpected happening: I could not help but get excited. The trailer, for a change, did exactly what it was supposed to. Without telling the whole story of the film, it revealed enough to give me a genuine interest in the movie and make me want to travel 180 miles (each way) to go to a screening.

Before checking out Argo, I decided to brush up on the history of the actual mission, which was part of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 – 1981. To check out what I could about the historical events, I picked my copy of Jimmy Carter’s memoirs, Keeping Faith (reviewed here!), off my shelf and looked at what he had to say about it. I was pleased when Carter’s memoirs provided no spoilers. Published almost immediately after his tenure as President, Carter could not reveal much about the mission as it was still classified. Ironically, he refered obliquely to the story of the escape of the six hostages as “. . . a real cloak-and-dagger story . . .” (493). If Argo has any truth to it (it is based upon the true story), then Carter was seriously underselling it!

In the hands of director Ben Affleck, Argo is a masterfully-executed historical thriller that keeps the viewer engaged and entertained throughout. Yes, this is a pleasant occasion where it is worth getting one’s hopes up for a film!

Starting with a brief history lesson on Iran and the U.S. (and Canadian) involvement there, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is overrun by student activists. As compassion gets the better of some of the military officers and the Embassy is taken – with its personnel being taken hostage – six of the workers at the front office escape onto the street. They make it to the Canadian Ambassador’s residence where they are left as the U.S. focuses on the sixty people held hostage within the U.S. embassy. The C.I.A. calls exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez to meet with State Department officials who are planning to get the six Americans out of the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. Mendez quickly realizes that the State Department plans are ridiculous for the time of year, but he has no better ideas of his own.

But watching Battle For The Planet Of The Apes remotely with his son, Mendez concocts a ridiculous and audacious plan. He pitches getting the Americans out by having them pose as a Canadian film crew working on a science fiction film that could be set in Iran. As the situation between the Iranians and Canadians deteriorates, Mendez rustles up support from Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and executive producer Lester Siegel. As the trio works to make it look like they are preparing a real film, Jack O’Donnell does what he can to hold the agencies together. When Tony, using an alias, manages to infiltrate Iran, he finds the execution of his plan fraught with even more challenges than he planned for!

Argo might seem obvious Oscar fodder, but it is one of those films that could have credibly been released any time in the year and generated Oscar-buzz. Argo is smart, tense, and generally well-crafted. Director Ben Affleck, who also stars as the film’s primary protagonist, Tony Mendez, keeps the pace and tension high and he uses several techniques that make the viewer appreciate his perspective and approach as director. For example, Affleck uses music minimally throughout Argo. At most of the most tense moments, the soundtrack cuts out altogether, so the viewer experiences a sense of realistic anxiety and uncertainty. Affleck does not use music to telegraph the emotions the viewer is “supposed” to feel.

Moreover, Argo is well-balanced to be exceptionally entertaining. While the opening is chaotic and legitimately scary (even though the viewer knows what is coming with the fall of the American embassy), the middle portion of the film, which focuses on Mendez in Hollywood working with Chambers and Siegel, is actually funny. The film continues in the final act as a tense, but intelligent and well-crafted movie that details the mission and is smart enough to include the complexities of the real human elements (one of the Americans, for example, is afraid and overly cautious, terrified that this plan has no real chance of success). Ben Affleck deserves some further credit for his technique by judiciously using subtitles in some of the later scenes, to help illustrate the confusion of the non-Farsi-speaking Americans and heighten the level of fear for the audience.

The only real drawbacks to Argo are the sheer number of frenetic camera movements over several scenes that Affleck uses to heighten tension. While I was content with the one at the beginning, the ones near the end gave me a headache. I also noticed a few instances of audio fall-out, where characters who were speaking quietly became inaudible.

On the acting front, Argo might seem like an argument for stacking the deck or expected greatness. After all, the cast is pretty amazing, with strong roles for John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston. Clea DuVall is virtually unrecognizable (and completely convincing) as Cora Lijek and Philip Baker Hall is granted little more than a cameo. Victor Garber has another memorable role for his resume as the Canadian Ambassador, Kenneth Taylor, though his role is very much a supporting one.

Ben Affleck is given most of the heavy lifting to do and what is arguably most impressive about Argo is how incredibly he performs as Tony Mendez while directing such a rich, complex film. Six months ago, had you told me that I would get excited about a Ben Affleck film and would be arguing for him to get the Oscar nomination for Best Director (he deserves it; despite the faults it has, Argo is a better-directed film than Prometheus, despite that being an overall better use of the film medium), I would have called you crazy. But with Argo, Affleck pulls it off. He is a serious contender and Argo is his legitimate masterpiece and well worth your time and attention.

For other works with Alan Arkin, please check out my reviews of:
The Change-Up
Get Smart
Little Miss Sunshine
America's Sweethearts
Glengarry Glen Ross
Edward Scissorhands

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, by clicking here!


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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