Thursday, November 1, 2012

Argo

Ben Affleck's third effort as director, ARGO,  is one of those stories that just has to be true, because it is so unlikely. As with other "based on true events" bits of fiction, the historical accuracy verifiers will be all over this movie, explaining in all caps on forum boards how many things the movie got wrong. You could read the history and pick your own holes in Chris Terrio's screenplay, which depicts a secret mission to rescue a group of United States diplomats from Tehran during the tumultuous events leading to the lengthy hostage crisis in 1979. Do liberties taken with the facts hurt this film?

I gauge a film's success on how well the filmmaker delivers on the initial premise. The tone, the point of view, the intentions are usually established in the early scenes. ARGO opens effectively with a rapidly edited (though not the hyper cutting we see in other current movies) montage and narration of the siege on the American Embassy in Iran. Militants would hold most of the staff hostage for over 400 days. Six workers manage to flee and hole up in the residence of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The State Department brainstorms methods of extracting the diplomats, each scenario summarily shot down by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) who has seen enough (and uses a fair amount of logic) to predict dire outcomes.

An insane notion occurs to Mendez one night while watching a movie on television: concoct a fake sci-fi film, "Argo", complete with ads in Hollywood trade papers to make it seem legitimate, and convince the Iranians that the diplomats are actually a film crew there to scope out the landscape for their low rent STAR WARS-like opus.  The plan: Mendez, posing as a producer, will fly to Tehran, bring the escapees to a busy plaza to scout locations to make everything seem authentic, then fly with them home. There will be fake passports and much bluffing to the arts consulate and airport security.. This is a true story; "the least bad idea we have," states Mendez's boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to superiors.

ARGO does not consider, in its many observant Hollywood scenes, if this movie were real, what tax benefits there would be for shooting in such an "exotic" locale. Maybe ask William Friedkin, who perhaps recklessly shot part of THE EXORCIST in Iraq.

Makeup guy John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) are hired to build the ruse, to set up a fake studio and even hold a public line reading with the actors (including Adrienne Barbeau, in some era appropriate casting) in full costume. The Hollywood scenes are at times uproariously funny and on target. Much credit must go to the actors - Goodman and Arkin have perfect chemistry as weary industry vets. Arkin gets a laugh in nearly every one of his scenes, often quite ribald.

ARGO very deftly balances the absurdity of L.A. politics with that of D.C. and the Middle East, never allowing the seriousness of the hostage situation to be comprised to produce just another glib Tinseltown satire. Affleck may be guilty of using some time honored filimic tools such emotive scoring and a tender sub-plot involving Mendez's estranged wife and young son, but he is easily forgiven as he impresses with tight, no frills direction and solid storytelling throughout. He milks the tension and suspense of the climax for every bit of its worth: real, old-fashioned, white knuckle, crowd pleasing filmmaking. Some of that suspense, it must be mentioned, comes at the expense of historical accuracy. The Canadian government apparently drove the Argo mission and the film ignores this, as an example. Several scenes were added "for dramatic effect" and perhaps you might say it wasn't necessary.

I'm not a stickler for to the letter detail of real life events with cinema unless the director aggressively tries to establish that. But honestly, a fictional film's merit should never be measured as to how close to real life the events depicted are.  The only time I join in the fact check malcontent chorus is when an author recounts an event for his or her book and plays fast and loose. As meticulously detailed as ARGO is, it is nothing close to being a documentary. Even if it was, it should('ve) be approached carefully. Many impressionable viewers who don't read anything beyond a headline or a Twitter post may be apt to believe every event presented here as truth, just like many bought into every point in Oliver Stone's JFK, but don't blame the filmmakers.

This story in fact is quite interesting at showing that how sometimes the make-believe can even save your life. In some tangential way, I was reminded of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.

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