Sunday, March 2, 2014

Argo (2012)

Director: Ben Affleck                                       Writer: Chris Terrio
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                         Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman

If Good Will Hunting hadn’t been so incredibly good, then the languishing of Ben Affleck wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing. But it was a tremendous film, winning Oscars for both Affleck and Matt Damon for their screenplay. Since then Damon has vaulted into the upper echelon of film stardom while Ben Affleck has swirled around the eddies of Hollywood, looking desperately for something to get him out of the backwater and into the mainstream. In last year’s Oscar winning film, Argo, he found it. It’s the formerly classified story of CIA operative Tony Mendez who went into Iran during the hostage crisis and managed to extract six of the U.S. Embassy staff who had escaped the compound and were hiding in the Canadian Embassy.

The verisimilitude of the opening sequence is chilling, as the embassy staffers watch helplessly, their gates being breached, their building being broken into, and falling into the hands of the hostage takers. In one part of the compound where people came in off the street to make visa applications, the staff there debated for a few moments and then simply opened the front doors and walked out into the street and found sanctuary with the Canadians. But there was no way for them to stay hidden. People inside the embassy were working to put together shredded documents that not only told the actual numbers of people working there, but also photographs of the missing six. In addition, the Canadians wanted to close their embassy as well, but couldn’t because of the Americans hidden there. Finally, an extraction was okayed by President Carter and Mendez went in to get them out.

The title of the film comes from the plan itself, to have the staffers pretend to be Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a movie. John Goodman plays the makeup artist that Ben Affleck, as Mendez, gets in contact with to set up the fake film. Realizing they will need an actual producer, the two of them enlist Alan Arkin so that he can make Hollywood think it’s a real film. This is one of the best casting decisions of the film. Arkin has exactly the right touch, abrasive yet funny, taking on the pre-production of the film as though it was legit and wielding his Hollywood clout to sell everyone on the project. After that his only job was to wait by the phone and verify Affleck’s cover story in case the Iranians called. The other nice touch was having actors who are not necessarily stars to play the hostages. It really gives their roles a touch of anonymity that adds much needed realism to the proceedings.

This may be the transitional film that Ben Affleck needs to really launch his career, and he seems to be taking the same track as George Clooney. Clooney had been playing cute with the camera for a long time, but it wasn’t until he started getting serious with films like Michael Clayton and The American that he began giving great performances. Affleck has the same problem as Clooney did early on with his ironic grin. It’s cute, but doesn’t make for great cinema. The real genius of his performance, then, is a lack of “performing.” By keeping his thoughts and emotions beneath the surface and allowing the audience not to see his emotions, it is actually much more telling and powerful. It’s also telling that George Clooney was one of the producers of the film. Argo may not have actually been the best film of 2012, but it certainly struck a chord with people that only Lincoln may have come close to.

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