Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo brings history to
gripping life

We always talk about how Madonna has reinvented herself over the years, but her popularity has never really been in question. Ben Affleck, on the other hand, has become the master of reinvention after his Hollywood golden boy status was tarnished by more than a few stinkers: Gigli, Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, to name a few. But after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Good Will Hunting (with pal Matt Damon), Affleck has now turned his attention to directing. His major screen debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a gripping tale of a child's kidnapping that nabbed Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for Amy Adams. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed The Town, in which he also acted and which scored an Oscar nomination for Jeremy Renner.

Now Affleck is back in the director's chair – successfully – and on screen in the new real life thriller Argo. Argo tells the formerly classified story of six Americans who escaped the US embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979. The Americans managed to slip out of the embassy and after trying to find sanctuary at several different embassies, the Canadian ambassador and his wife took them in at great risk to their own lives. The US government went through several scenarios to try to get them out, but hostage extraction expert Tony Mendez said none of the ideas would work because none of them made sense (for example, providing them with fake teacher visas when there were no US teachers in the country). Mendez, who had worked with some Hollywood connections including makeup artist John Chambers (the original Planet of the Apes) and other Hollywood contacts, came up with the idea to make the six Americans members of a film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi flick called "Argo." The government wasn't thrilled with the idea, but it was the "best bad idea" they had. And it worked!

That's not to say the plan was foolproof or without peril, but even though we know the outcome – they were returned home safely – Affleck manages to ramp up the tension as they attempt to get through the military security at the airport as a sweatshop of workers try to piece together shredded images of the six missing Americans. You really are on the edge of your seat and holding your breath until that plane clears Iranian air space. Affleck not only nails the story and the tension, but the period as well. The fashion, the hair, the porn 'staches, the d├ęcor, everything is done to perfection. And the proof is in the pudding as the end credits juxtaposes actual photos of the people and key events with the recreations in the film.

Aside from a few familiar faces like Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, and Alan Arkin, the six Americans are played by mostly unfamiliar actors (or those with faces you know but can't place the name … and they're almost unrecognizable anyway under the period hair styles) which gives the film an even stronger sense of realism. Casting BIG names in those roles would have been too distracting, so the right decision was made to go with less well-known faces.

As a historical drama – and there is a brief but crucial introduction of Iranian history to put the whole conflict in perspective – Argo is a movie that could probably be shown in classrooms. Some of the incidentals have been changed for dramatic purposes, but it still tells a compelling story from an important moment in American and world history. That's not to say it's just as dry as the desert sands either. Argo is suspenseful and gripping, with just the right amount of humor (mostly provided by Goodman and Arkin as they try to get their fake movie financed without revealing that the entire operation is a farce) to make this a crackling piece of entertainment. I don't think I'm going too far off base here by saying that the film is almost sure to get a Best Picture nomination at next year's Oscars, and if Affleck doesn't get a director nomination as well, there is no justice in Hollywood. As it is in the here and now, Argo should be on your must-see list.

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