Nail-biting political thriller
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 12, 2012
Have you heard that cinema is dying? That the movies are kaput? That Hollywood just doesn’t make films for grown-ups anymore?
You’ve heard wrong -- at least if “Argo” is any indication.
This captivating, expertly machined political thriller jumps through every hoop the naysayer can set up: It’s serious and substantive, an ingeniously written and executed drama fashioned from a fascinating, little-known chapter of recent history.
It also happens to be extremely funny, crafty and enormously entertaining. It’s two, maybe even three, films in one -- all of which work as enjoyably on their own as they do in concert.
“Argo” is all the more remarkable for having been so adroitly directed by Ben Affleck -- who it seems just yesterday was being dismissed as the paparazzi’s favorite pretty boy, but who in recent years has emerged as a filmmaker of astonishing assurance and depth.
In “Argo,” Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA expert in disguises and “exfiltration,” who at the height of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 is called on to get six American diplomats out of Tehran, where they’ve been hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. His scheme is so crazy, it just might work: He proposes to impersonate a movie producer who arrives in Iran to scout locations for his upcoming science-fiction flick, “Argo.” After some legerdemain with paperwork and spending a day or two chatting up the new revolutionary government’s cultural ministers, he’ll depart with the Americans in tow, each of them playing someone on the film’s crew.
Working from a superbly well-crafted script by Chris Terrio, Affleck threads viewers through the dauntingly tricky geopolitics and tonal shifts of “Argo” with an utterly flawless sense of control, starting with an efficient, boldly graphic prologue explaining the roots of the Iranian Islamic revolution and putting viewers inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it is stormed in November 1979. From the chaos of those moments and ensuing days, he moves to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who has agreed to house six Americans who managed to escape the takeover. From the quiet tick-tock of that situation (which ranks somewhere between house arrest and an Edward Albee play), he smoothly shifts to Washington, where the State Department and the CIA weigh rescue options that include bicycles and trumped-up agricultural missions.
Once Tony hits on the movie idea, “Argo” goes to Hollywood, where a makeup man played by John Goodman and a producer played by Alan Arkin advise Tony on how to set up a phony movie -- a shockingly easy feat in a town where, as Arkin’s character observes, “people lie for a living.” Like “Wag the Dog” before it, “Argo” takes full advantage of the overlap between tradecraft and showbiz, depicting the movie industry at its most tacky, mendacious and fulsomely amoral. The studios “would shoot in Stalingrad with Pol Pot directing if they thought it would sell tickets,” an insider observes at one point; an earlier bit involving Warren Beatty and the Golden Globes isn’t just flawlessly delivered, but perfectly captures the cult of proximity that is so often confused with power in the business of show.
While yellow ribbons begin to swathe the rest of America -- and a little show called “Nightline” becomes citizens’ go-to source of hostage crisis updates -- Mendez and his colleagues refine their plan until he’s ready to take it live, at which point “Argo” suddenly but seamlessly switches from an antic Hollywood send-up back to a taut “Mission: Impossible”-type thriller. And by “Mission: Impossible,” I refer to the television show of the 1970s, a time period that Affleck captures with stylistic touches as authentic as they are inadvertently witty, from IBM Selectrics that were the state-of-the-art word processors of their day to the pneumatic tubes CIA bureaucrats used for intra-office communications (hey, they never crashed).
“The whole country is watching you, they just don’t know it,” says Mendez’s boss, played by Bryan Cranston. The neat trick that Affleck pulls off is making “Argo” play like a real-time nail-biter, even if most viewers already know the outcome. (The scheme was attributed solely to the Canadian government for years, until it was declassified in 1997.)
A closing-credits side-by-side montage shows to what lengths Affleck has gone to re-create the real-life places and people of “Argo” (the mini-ensemble of Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Clea Duvall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe deserve special mention for their work channeling the six American houseguests). But it’s his command of artifice -- the staging, editing and judiciously calibrated unfolding of the story, especially its harrowing final moments -- that proves his mettle as a director of genuine chops.
“Argo” deserves to find the discerning audience it has been made for: After all, if we buy tickets, that means more smart, sophisticated filmmaking -- and less Stalingrad -- for all of us.
Contains profanity and some violent images.