October 14, 2012

Argo

A sharp and gripping thriller, expertly tailored by director-producer-star Ben Affleck. Sustaining suspense in a movie where some of the audience know the ending (of the true-life story) is a challenge; Affleck keeps stirring the pot all the way through, and keeps the suspense high until the end. My grade: A-minus.
The opening sequence- a reenactment of the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran (November 1979) is terrifying. I don't know any of the history of these events, but it's shocking that the embassy remained open at the time. Why didn't the State Department pull their servicemen out sooner? The scenes of mob violence, and the capture of the diplomats, all hit home hard after the events in Benghazi on 9/11/2012.
In the wake of the capture and the beginning of the hostage crisis, CIA "exfil" expert Tony Mendez (Affleck with bad 70s hair) is called in to consult with State. Bryan Cranston is Mendez' boss, and he deserves a medal for his flawless and entertaining exposition. He briefs Mendez during a walk-and-talk through Langley, and he manages to explain for us the complete political-diplomatic-bureaucratic landscape in a fast-paced monologue, in a perfect balance of clarity, in-house jargon, and humor. "(President) Carter's shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids" is one memorable line.
I don't think anyone says the words "this plan is so crazy, it just might work" but that's essentially the idea. The only way to extract six Americans from Iran during the revolution is to cook up a crazy plan, develop a deep background, and rely on sloppy Iranian bookkeeping to bluff your way through.
Mendez goes to Hollywood to set up a complete fake movie production company, where John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Richard Kind provide terrific comic relief. As much as I like Goodman, I feel like he's overused-- until I saw a photo of the real Oscar-winning makeup artist he's playing.
I appreciated that Argo shines a light on Americans who are rarely recognized for their hard work- foreign service workers toiling for the US in some of the most dangerous places on Earth; and the unknown officers of the intelligence services, choosing to fly into Iran to save the lives of strangers, with little hope of success. It's a thankless, heroic occupation, far from the land of spies or assassins, these men and women are acting covertly to save lives.
CASTING NOTES: Set in 1979, the hairstyles, grooming choices, and eyeglasses of the Americans in Iran are regrettable. It's easy to doubt that any man would ever choose to comb his hair that way, or that any woman ever thought those eyeglasses would work for her. Color me surprised during the closing credits, when photos of the characters were matched with the real-life passport photos of the six Americans-- those combovers and the walrus mustache are all authentic. Plus, the actors closely resemble the real people- when you're casting actors to play obscure historical figures, the only reason to cast the parts so well is out of respect.
Both Kyle Chandler and Chris Messina are having their "moments" these days; I see these two everywhere! Since Friday Night Lights went off the air, Chandler made Super 8, Argo, and four more features either in the can or filming now, two directed by Oscar winners Martin Scorsese (The Wolf Of Wall Street) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty).
Since I saw Chris Messina in Julie & Julia in 2008, he's appeared in 11 movies, plus he's a regular on The Newsroom, Damages, and The Mindy Project.