Sunday, October 21, 2012

Argo: Escape from Tehran

     It's very tough to make an entertaining film about a touchy and true political situation, especially with the news of the recent U.S. embassy attack in Libya making headlines everyday. It's especially difficult to add humor to the life and death dilemma. Films such as this tend to offend and become a slog through political arguing. But Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck (whose direction is only getting better after the solid Boston crime flicks Gone Baby Gone and The Town), succeeds at both: containing tense I-can't-believe-it's-real thrills, movie-making humor, and impeccable direction by Affleck throughout its entire run time, Argo is a rare movie for adults that is entertaining and also informative of the world we live in. Relations between Iran and America have never been so fun and watchable.
   The year is 1979. The U.S. embassy has been overrun by Iranians seeking vengeance against the deposed Shah, who has fled to the U.S. for surgical treatment. During the intense fray, six American officials escape the embassy and secretly take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo is the story of the CIA's plan to extract the six Americans that have gone into hiding--if they are found by the Iranians, they are sure to be taken and probably executed in a brutal and violent manner.
     Luckily, the CIA has a creative force with a sense of humor: Tony Mendez (Affleck), a quiet and intense man who is a master at getting people out of tough situations. Mendez, thinking (way) outside the box, easily shoots down other official's ideas to try and covertly get the six out and comes up with a plan that is so absolutely insane that it might actually work: enlisting a movie make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a film producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a fake film, called Argo, concocting all of the aspects that the process involves (screenwriting, casting, a press release). Mendez, then posing as a producer himself, will fly to Tehren, meet up with the six hideways, and help them pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for futuristic, middle-eastern-set fake film.
     The really great thing about Argo is the suspense that is felt in nearly every scene, especially the ones that take place in the crumbled and dangerous streets of Iran: instead of relying on overblown car chases and explosions, Affleck masterfully directs quick scene after scene of the six officials living on edge, holed up in a house that they can't leave. These are transposed with the backroom dealings at the CIA headquarters, where Bryan Cranston really stands out as Jack, Mendez's boss who green-lights the movie-making scheme against his better judgement. Mendez travels to Iran, where he coaches the group with their new Canadian identities. They must memorize who they are what their jobs are for the fake film (producer, location scout, screenwriter, etc.) in order to get through the three levels of security at the airport--the last level being  a group of Iranian revolutionaries, decked out in camo and assault rifles, ready to shoot any American trying to leave the country on sight. The airport scene is the climax of the film, and it is intense stuff. The tension between America and Iran, especially correlating to today's world, is scary and real, and although there is plenty of humor in the film, some good / some corny--mainly from Arkin's cocky old movie producer--the feeling that these characters are on the precipice of death is felt throughout.
     Argo isn't perfect: the ending goes on and on, and it's somewhat predictable in places (as any real life story tends to be), but it has a magic that keeps your eyes glued to the cinema screen. At times, it reminded me of last year's Hugo, particularly in the way it shows how film can more than just a distraction for a couple of hours: it can cause a purpose in a person's life--or even save someone's life. No specific performance is amazingly special, though I did really enjoy Affleck's calm and funny portrayal of Mendez. But taken as a whole, everyone plays their small part to make the film one of the more enjoyable of the year. You probably know the ending to Argo, if you've read any articles on the film or have a good memory of recent U.S. history. However, the conclusion is only a small part of the fun and tension-covered journey. When Mendez takes the group out in public, to solidify their status as a Canadian film crew, dodging violence and gun-weilding revolutionaries, whether or not you know if they make it home doesn't matter: like most scenes in Argo, you'll be on the edge of your seat.     (B+)

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