Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Argo (2012)

ARGO, the new film from actor-director Ben Affleck, is an absolutely terrific piece of old-fashioned, thoroughly entertaining moviemaking.

ARGO tells a story I vaguely recalled from my high school years, when six Americans who escaped the 1979 takeover of our Iranian embassy were hidden by the Canadian ambassador and smuggled out of the country weeks later.

What wasn't known until years later is that the Canadians were working in concert with the CIA, particularly "exfiltration" expert Tony Mendez, played by Affleck. With Canada providing the Americans with fake-but-real Canadian passports, Mendez concocted a scheme to pretend that the six Americans were a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a STAR WARS ripoff called ARGO. As part of the cover he created a production company and optioned a script, aided by producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman). The men even took out ads in the trade papers.

The film is a very effective combination of suspense, humor, and history, which also provides a fascinating look at the spy business. Arkin and Goodman get most of the funny lines, but there are excellent performances all around, including by the six unfamiliar actors playing the "house guests" and Bryan Cranston of BREAKING BAD as Mendez's CIA boss.

Victor Garber is particularly believable as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who risked his life on behalf of the Americans. (Garber, incidentally, is a close personal friend of Affleck and his wife Jennifer Garner, with whom he costarred on ALIAS; in fact, he officiated at their wedding.) Kyle Chandler of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS has little more than a cameo as Hamilton Jordan, but again he registers strongly in his few scenes. It was interesting to note from the end credits that Garber and Chandler were made up to look remarkably like the real men they were playing!

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Christopher Stanley (Henry Francis of MAD MEN) as one of the U.S. hostages and Adrienne Barbeau as the "Galactic Witch" in the ARGO cast.

The movie does a wonderful job recreating the time and place of 1979-80, from the name Burbank Studios plastered on the Warner Bros. lot to the avocado green phones to the yellow ribbons everywhere -- and of course, the awful hairstyles and clothes. The movie really brought back the era.

One detail I question: I certainly remember the sadly decaying Hollywood sign of the '70s, but articles I found online indicated the sign was restored as of October 1978, a year prior to the 1979 takeover of the embassy in Iran. It appears that the depiction of the sign in the film was a bit of dramatic license. For that matter, it's also been widely acknowledged that some incidents were added to the last part of the movie for added suspense.

The film runs a well-paced two hours. The screenplay was by Chris Terrio, with cinematography by Rodrigo Priego. The movie's large executive producer team included George Clooney, who seems to have a hand in many of the quality films released in recent years.

Thoughts from other reviewers: Leonard Maltin says ARGO "is one terrific movie, the best I’ve seen all year." Lou Lumenick of the New York Post writes that the film is "a blue-chip Oscar contender that’s also a rousing popcorn movie," while Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times says the film "takes you a brighter, earlier time, when Hollywood regularly turned out smart and engaging films that crackled with energy and purpose." Michael Totten, writing for Instapundit, also suggests the film "is better by far than just about anything else Hollywood has ever produced about the Middle East."

Parental Advisory: This film is rated R for foul language. It also contains some scary but non-gory images. As parents we've always been pretty strict about our younger teens not seeing most R-rated movies -- there are simply so many more appropriate films available to them to see, we feel the R titles can wait -- but in this case I would have no problem with my 14-year-old seeing this film, and in fact would encourage it. It's a very well-made slice of history, and the language isn't anything he doesn't hear on his high school campus, more's the pity.

A trailer is at IMDb.

Highly recommended.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Affleck does a nice job with his direction, but this is definitely not his strongest feature despite being his most ambitious. It’s entertaining, well-acted, and fun to watch, but not as tense as it should have been. Good review Laura.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Irene said...

I finally saw the movie today. I was also reading about what really happened versus the movie and it seems there is a quite a bit. But that aside I found it to be a great film. Unlike the previous comment I did find it to be tense and even though I knew they made it out I was still on the edge of my seat (but much of what happened at the airport in the movie did not happen in real life - but where is the suspense in that?). During this time frame of 1979/80 I was close to thirty and getting ready to be married. I had forgotten what an awful period of time this was and it brought back many uncomfortable memories of what was going on in the world at that time. Also 32 years for me doesn't seem all that long ago and it is mind boggling to me how far we have come with technology. Were our TV's, phones, office equipment really like that? Yes, they were - just amazing how far we've come.

7:06 PM  

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