Monday, October 15, 2012

Geopolitical Showbiz: ARGO

In early 1980, an unknown producer quietly, but with a modicum of industry press attention, put a next-to-no-budget science fiction movie named Argo into production. This movie was not destined to be a hit. It wasn’t even to be made at all, cancelled before it even got off the ground. It was, however, a movie of some small historical importance. Argo was a C.I.A. cover story for an attempted extraction of six Americans trapped in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This unlikely true story is now a movie named Argo, so the whole thing comes full circle. Now a movie about itself, to a certain extent, its new iteration, directed by star Ben Affleck, is a nicely paced period piece thriller.

Though smartly scripted and narrowly focused by Chris Terrio, this film starts messily, with a flurry of heavy-handed exposition and clumsily staged scene setting. Laying out a Cliffs Notes background of 20th century Iranian history right off the bat led me to believe that the film would be far more interested in providing and exploring the political context rather than leaving the setting and situation as mere set-dressing and plot motivators for its primary concerns. Those concerns are nothing more than crisply presented scenes of period detail and men in suits urgently taking care of business, a terrific collection of character actors doing what they do best: lending weight and likability to small, but impactful roles.

In the film’s opening moments, the American embassy in Iran is taken over and six of its employees (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and others) manage to flee, taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). They can’t stay there for long. Soon someone will grow suspicious. The embassy hostage-takers will realize they don’t have all the Americans in their possession. Domestic pressure is mounting as well. The days go by with little news, good or bad, and the populace grows weary and restless. Affleck fills the opening of the film with copious cutaways to news footage both mock and real, filling in information of the political malaise of the times with overeager intrusiveness. Still, the point gets across. What will become of this dangerous situation? The U.S. government needs a plan.

That’s where the fake movie comes in. It’s, in the words of the C.I.A. operative played by Bryan Cranston, “the best bad idea we’ve got.” The agent played by Ben Affleck will fly into Tehran posing as a producer of a Canadian science fiction film, meet up with these hiding Americans and fly away claiming them as Canadians in his film crew. To do so, the movie needs be adequately believable, which is where two Hollywood veterans – a special effects expert (John Goodman) and a weary producer (Alan Arkin) – come in. They’re there to make the whole thing look legitimate. The Hollywood sequences in the film are dryly funny in the tension between the literal life-and-death stakes of the agents’ plans and the been-there-done-that attitudes of the showbiz types.

Focusing on the process of this unlikely, stranger-than-fiction rescue attempt, Argo mixes scenes of tense walks down hallways, conversations around rotary phones and passing manila folders between men in sharp suits and shaggy facial hair. (This is a film that gets a lot of mileage out of its period costuming, a sort of spy game Mad Men in that way.) In sequences set in America, great that-guy actors like Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, and Titus Welliver fill in quickly sketched government roles, spouting jargon, delivering terse one-liners, and getting the plot moving. In Iran-set sequences, threats are presented as vague foreign rage that rumbles outside the home in which the six Americans are nervously hiding, unable to even look out a window for fear of capture and execution. As the hidden Americans’ and their hopeful rescuers’ plotlines slowly merge, the film builds to an extended period of undeniably effective suspense, skillfully made.

Affleck has proven himself a relatively unshowy auteur, creating functional pieces of serious-minded mid-budget genre filmmaking – thrillers of one sort or another, all – without generating much in the way of distinctive filmmaking. In Gone Baby Gone and The Town, as in Argo, he gets good actors solid material and stays out of the way, doing only what’s necessary to get the story on the screen. That’s not an altogether unworthy approach. Even if here it leads to some visual uncertainty – he’ll go for three shots when one would do – he knows when to capture strong popcorn energy and how to build tension out of nervous editing and tense parallelism. The final stretch of Argo is a nearly white-knuckle tightening of dramatic tension that unfolds so crisply and intensely that I could feel the collective exhale in the theater when the pressure eventually released. This is strong work. 

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