Friday, October 12, 2012

Absolutely Terrific: Argo

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm not sure why I continued to have doubts about Ben Affleck: Director. His previous efforts, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town are both very good movies. And that might have been the issue: those movies were good, but they weren't great. But with his third movie, Ben Affleck: Director has solidly moved into the "great" column. Argo is absolutely terrific.

I know I tend to talk about how preferable it is to go into some movies knowing very little about them, but this isn't just because of possible spoilers, or learning about plot twists. Sometimes not knowing what kind of movie you're getting into can make it a much more enjoyable experience.

In the case of Argo, not knowing the history it was based on makes the movie surprising, and one of the most edge-of-your-seat thrillers you'll ever see. I just can't fathom enjoying the film as much if you know the outcome.

And that is actually kind of a sad thing to admit, since I am essentially saying I am a complete ignoramus who didn't even know about the events depicted in the movie, (aside from the hostages part), despite them happening within my lifetime, AND I am hoping the majority of the audience is just as ignorant.

Sure, some of it was kept secret until 1997, (specifically, America's involvement), but the shell story was public knowledge, and in fact was even made into a film before, (a TV movie called Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper).

The basic plot is this: In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was overtaken by a mob of Iranians angry about America's support of the Shah, and his political asylum within the U.S. They, and much of Iran, wanted the Shah returned to the country so they could try him, and execute him.

Sixty-nine employees of the embassy were taken hostage, but six were able to slip out unnoticed, and make their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, (played by Victor Garber) and his wife, where they were forced to remain hidden.

CIA Agent Tony Mendez, (Affleck), is given the task of figuring out how to get the Americans out. While the CIA is focused on giving them flimsy covers as teachers on a biking trip to the border, Mendez hatches one of those "if this were in a movie, no one would believe it" plans. And in fact, it is a movie. A fake movie. Mendez plans to give them covers as a Canadian film crew in Iran scouting locations for an Arabian-influenced space movie titled...Argo.

In order to make the fake movie look as real as possible, Mendez employs special effects make-up man John Chambers, best known for his work on the Planet of the Apes movies, (John Goodman), and a cynical veteran movie producer, (hilariously played by Alan Arkin), to create a credible cover, including the optioning of the script, the creation of trade paper ads and storyboards, and a table read/press event.

This part of the story is pure fun, and takes the movie into the realm of insider comedy, especially when the wisecracking movie vets utter such lines as, "If I'm gonna make a fake movie, it's gonna be a fake hit," and "Can you teach someone to be a director in a day?," "You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

Once Mendez gets to Iran, the film turns into an intense bit of suspense, and that's where I'll stop with the plot details, and hope for your shared ignorance in how everything ultimately turned out.

Now, I'm not so naive as to believe that every aspect of the movie is factual. Much of the second half of the film is played up--way up--for the sake of suspense. But it's a pleasing bit of irony that Affleck has made a movie about planning a fake movie, and it's filled with falsities that actually help to make it an almost perfect Hollywood production. The irony gets even bigger when you realize that the story that was sold to world for years as fact was, largely, a lie.

So, yeah, it will have detractors who will condemn its selling of yet another legend over fact. But to them I can only quote directly from the movie itself and say, "Argo fuck yourself."

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