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 Argo (2012)

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Argo (2012)    Thu Dec 13, 2012 12:54 am

It's still easy to remember that a decade ago, Ben Affleck had become box-office poison, after winning an Oscar with Matt Damon for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, it appeared that he'd made bad choices in his career, going from Pearl Harbor (2001) to Gigli (2003) to Jersey Girl (2004) to Surviving Christmas (2004). It looked like he might become the next Nicolas Cage, making all the wrong choices, even South Park had had a go at him twice. Then in 2006, he won critical plaudits for his portrayal of George Reeves in Hollywoodland, he captured the late Superman stars arrogance and pomposity brilliantly. But, the following year, Affleck made a move into film directing with his adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 1998 novel, Gone Baby Gone (2007), which starred his brother Casey Affleck. It would win him the National Board of Review Award for Best Directorial Debut. Affleck found himself with a deal at Warner Bros. who were impressed by his directing style, and for his next film, he gave us The Town (2010), a gritty, urban thriller set on the streets of Boston. It was a powerful and exciting film that cemented Affleck as a must see director, and now the people who had panned him now admired Affleck as he'd found something he was good at. After The Town, Affleck was offered a script by his friend George Clooney, which was based on a magazine article from 2007 which reported on 'The Canadian Caper'. A little known rescue mission that occured in 1980, which the CIA came up with a plan so crazy, it could work in order to rescue six Americans stuck in a terrifying country. With Argo, Affleck captures the era brilliantly, makes a film so tense and suspenseful, it's almost uncomfortable, and he gets brilliant performances from his actors, including himself, and Argo might be the best film of 2012.

On November 4th 1979, Iran has just overthrown their Shah, and militants have turned on the American Embassy in Tehran, with no way out, the embassy staff frantically destroy most of their important documents, but the militants get in, and 50 staff are held hostage, but 6 staff get out, they are Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Amburn-Lijek (Clea DuVall), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Joseph Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kathleen Stafford (Kerry Bishé) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane). On the dangerous streets of Tehran, they finds refuge in the house of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Stuck in the house, the months go by, 1979 gives way to 1980. There's no let up in the hostage situation and the 6 Americans are still in the house of Ken Taylor. In Virginia, the CIA are trying to come up with a plan to get the 6 Americans out of Iran before the Iranian Militants find out they're missing. CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), comes upon one while talking to his estranged son about Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Mendez pitches the idea to his supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) of posing as a film crew from Canada scouting locations for "an exotic sci-fi film". Seeing as no other ideas would work, it seems like it's worth a shot. Mendez and O'Donnell get in touch with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had helped the CIA in the past, together with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), they set up a fake film production company, and looking through scripts, they come across one called Argo, a space fantasy with desert locations. With the production planned, Mendez travels via Istanbul, into the lions den to get the 6 Americans out. But even they think the plan is flawed and that it won't work. But, Mendez is determined to see that it does.

It sounds so unbelievable, that it couldn't be true, but it is. It's absolutely bloody gripping, and the final 30 minutes have to be the most tense, frightening and uncomfortable scenes ever put to film. There hasn't been a politically thriller this gripping since the 1970's, although Affleck and his team did take one or two liberties with the truth. Especially with the final push, where suspense was heightened for dramatic purposes. Plus, in real life, the Americans spent a few days at the British Ambassadors house then the house of the New Zealand ambassador. But, this was skimmed over and all the attention is focused on these 6 Americans that are trapped in the house, plus there's little about the other Americans who were being held by the militants in the U.S. Embassy. But maybe that's the point, this is a focused story about one aspect of the coup of Iran, it could be told from hundreds of different aspects, but this is one of such bravery, such unbelievably high odds, odds that were against them all the way, but no other plan would apparently work. Affleck captures the mood of the time with suspense and even humour in places, especially when we get out to Hollywood, and we see the films being made at the time there, most of them were rip-offs of Star Wars, which is what Argo was essentially. But, this film has already given birth to one brilliant and hilarious catchphrase, uttered by Arkin's character Siegel, "Argo fuck yourself!!"

Affleck's direction is tight and to the point, he handles the action with tremendous confidence and gets great performances from his actors. It's a frightening film, and he even went to great lengths to get the period detail as right as possible, and the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005)), is brilliant. The halls of the CIA are cold, sterile and clinical, while Hollywood is all sunny and glitzy, while Iran comes out cold and dangerous. It's hard to imagine that this film will be shown in Iran anytime soon, not under their current regime anyways. It does have all the aspects of all the best Hollywood thrillers, with last minute chases, near-misses and heart-in-your-mouth moments. It's a story that remained largely unknown until President Clinton made it public during his tenure, and it started to leak out. It's a movie with 3 acts, the set up and what happens and the plans to try and save the 6 Americans, then it has Mendez putting together his team from the most unlikely people imaginable, Hollywood crews. Then, it has Mendez heading to Iran, then and now, the most dangerous country in the world to save the Americans. But, what's amazing about it is it's focus on narrative, it's not concerned with special effects and sensation, Affleck puts the characters and the story first and foremost. It's quite an unfussy style of direction, which is reminiscent of what Clint Eastwood does.

Affleck multi-tasks on this film, both directing it and playing Mendez, an estranged family man who wants to prove himself. Affleck, nearly unrecognisable with a bad beard and a long fringe actually puts in a good performance of a man who will never give in to save the 6 Americans. But the best acting comes from his co-stars, John Goodman as make-up man John Chambers, who adds a warmth and concern to the proceedings, and also wants to see the plan work, it reminds us that Goodman can still turn in a great performance. Arkin is a joy as the showy, no-nonsence Hollywood producer, even if the character was fictional, there were so many people like that in Hollywood at the time, and Arkin creates a hilarious amalgamation of a few. Cranston, who has been in a few films and even TV shows over the past few years makes a good boss for Affleck, skeptical of the plan, but knowing nothing else will work, trusts Mendez's instincts, and wants to see it through. There's a lot of cameos from good character actors in the film, look out for the likes of Philip Baker Hall (from Magnolia), Bob Gunton (off The Shawshank Redemption) and Kyle Chandler (off Friday Night Lights) all working for the U.S Government, all skeptical of the plan. Oh, and look out for Tarantino regular Michael Parks as comic book artist Jack Kirby.



If you like suspenseful films, films that give you a thrill, and films that want to leave you on the edge of your seat, this is one for you. Affleck has made his best film as a director with this one, and you won't forget it in a hurry. It's an unconventional rescue mission film, but it has a final act that you won't forget in a hurry. You have to see it to believe it, and even if you have been skeptical of Affleck's abilities in the past, you'll find a new respect for him with this film. It'll be exciting to see what he comes up with next as a director, as he has a lot to live up to after making this film. It wouldn't be surprising if he moved into directing more, as he has a good talent for it. The only things against it is the slightly mawkish epilogue after a suspenseful ending, and the film doesn't paint a very flattering picture of Iran, especially at a time when relations between Iran and the Western world is at an all time low, this film isn't going to improve international relations. But, these are microscopic niggles in an otherwise brilliant film. Affleck captures the mood of the world of the late 70's and early 80's brilliantly, (he even uses the old-style Warner Bros. logo from the period it's set in at the start). From the kitschy glitz of Hollywood at that time, to an old-world Iran, where they use child labour to put together all the shredded files. It'll put you off Iran, but it'll make you feel grateful towards Canada, for housing the American's no-one else would take them. God Bless Canada...
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