Monday, October 22, 2012


A Movie, Holding Hostage The Hostage Crisis In Iran

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez and Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell in Ben Affleck's "Argo".
Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, October 22, 2012

Ben Affleck does a fine job directing "Argo", which opened recently across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is based in part on Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired Magazine article on the true story of the "Canadian caper", in which CIA operative Tony Mendez engineered a fake movie production with Hollywood makeup icon Jack Chambers to surreptitiously extract six American hostages out of Iran during its revolution and hire-wire tensions between the U.S. and Iran in 1980.  Mendez got fake Canadian passports, got the half-dozen hostages holed up in a Canadian embassy to pretend to be filmmakers, and the rest was history.

As gripping and riveting an opening 20 minutes as you'll ever see on film, "Argo" begins with a cursory history of Iran, with Mossadeq, the secular Iran leader assassinated in the 1950s by the British and Americans through to the U.S.-installed Shah, then plunges us full-throttle into a well-directed sequence that is highly intense.  The angry throngs of Iranians outside the U.S. embassy.  The fearful Americans inside.  The panic at the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia.  Documentary footage.  This particular opening scene is superbly orchestrated in its direction, cinematography and especially its editing, and the three categories will see Oscar nominations in January.

"Argo" captures adrenaline high-stakes roulette, adrenaline and knife-edge tension in a convincing way.  Mr. Affleck successfully tells a fascinating true story on film, though there are too many vanity close-ups of the director, who plays Mr. Mendez, walking in and out of offices, deliberating, reasoning, grimacing.  The low point of "Argo", a good film, not a great one, is this subtle vainglorious posturing, more indulgent hero worship of Mr. Affleck than of Mr. Mendez, who achieved something back in 1980 that you simply couldn't script if it were part of a Hollywood movie.  Only it is scripted, by Chris Terrio. 

There's impressive work by Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell, Mendez's boss at the C.I.A. and Victor Garber as the Canadian embassy official host in Iran, where the American hostages enjoyed a tenuous type of asylum.  Alan Arkin has some snappy lines as a B-movie producer, even though a foul-mouthed punch line grows tiresome.  I wish that for all the degree of difficulty in pulling off such an ambitious project that Mr. Affleck had focused solely on directing and given the Tony Mendez role to Demián Bichir, Benicio Del Toro or another actor who could give more depth and range to Mr. Mendez, an American of Mexican heritage born in Nevada.  Sometimes Mr. Affleck, whose best directing effort remains "Gone Baby Gone" ("Argo" is a close second), looks like a lumbering potted plant when portraying Mendez, or a long-lost Doobie Brother.

While the circus atmosphere of the Jack Chambers episode (and its attendant comic relief aspects) of "Argo" are welcome as a leavening of the thick atmosphere of danger and foreboding, often such scenes (which include what looks like film producing icon Robert Evans) and several "Hollywood" moments completely took me out of the film's serious events.  Are the arguably gimmicky Hollywood parts of "Argo" its centerpiece and the Iran hostage crisis its background or vice versa?  Sometimes, given the emphasis of one over the other, you cannot be sure.  To this end Mr. Affleck's film feels schizophrenic: galvanizing and heart-pounding at the beginning and end but distracted and self-congratulatory in much of its middle. 

There are at least three competing films and storytellers in "Argo": the documentary footage including newsmen like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel, covering the American and Iranian climate surrounding the hostage affair; the political potboiler drama of the CIA office and its bureaucracy, with Mendez as a maverick; and the urgent predicament of the six American hostages in Iran, symbolic of the scores of Americans held hostage in Iran over several years in 1979 and the early 1980s.  Interestingly Mr. Affleck bypasses the Carter-Reagan election politics surrounding the delayed release of many other hostages until 1981, a famous maneuver as cynical and calculating as some aspects of "Argo" are.

"Argo" feels like a paean to Hollywood movie making.  Mr. Affleck's nail-biting drama extols the virtues of America's last great export, movies, as an entertainment that literally saves the world (or at least six Americans.)  Movies as American foreign policy in the 1980s, if you will.  In a penultimate scene of "Argo" the director shows how an American mainstay like Hollywood movies fascinates and intrigues the very people who may have strong justifiable reasons to hate America on a political and moral level.  It is this telling fact, whether illustrated for dramatic license purposes, or otherwise, that makes "Argo" as much an instrument of its own Hollywood self-parody as an irony unto itself.  If the movies can't set you free, you can hear "Argo" saying, then nothing else will.

Also with: John Goodman, Tate Donovan, Zeljko Ivanek, Clea DuVall, Kerry Bishé, Chris Messina, Kyle Changler, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham.

"Argo" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and some violent images.  The film's running time is two hours.  

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