Thursday, November 15, 2012

Argo - Theatrical Review

Release Date: October 12, 2012

Ben Affleck's latest directorial effort cements him as one of today's greatest talents behind the camera.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 16 Tyler Galleria
Time: 11:35 pm November 3, 2012   
Projector Type:  Digital 2D
Film Rating: R  
Film Runtime: 2 hr 00 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

Loves: Ben Affleck (The director), Gone Baby Gone, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston 

Likes: Unbelievable true stories, the amazing supporting cast
Neutral: Ben Affleck (The actor)
Hates: Nothing
These events were unknown at the time?: The CIA files were declassified in 1997

Following the true events surrounding the takeover of the Iranian U.S. Embassy in 1979,  CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Afleck) is given the task of constructing a cover story to extract six U.S. diplomats who were able to escape and take refuge in the nearby Canadian ambassador's home. With little time and little chance of success, Mendez employs the help of his Hollywood friend, legendary make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to construct a fake film production in order to have the stranded diplomats pose as Hollywood filmmakers and extract them before they are discovered by the Iranian militants and executed.

With his third time in the director's chair, Ben Affleck leaves no question as to his skills behind the camera. His previous two films impressed with quality acting, engrossing stories and a surprising amount of heart. What's more impressive about this third outing for him is that he has essentially left his comfort zone, no longer relying on the safety and security of filming in his hometown of Boston, MA he proves that he has a greater range than anyone ever expected. He also eschews the common crutch of most directors using familiar faces by bringing in a completely fresh assortment of talented actors such as Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy and Clea Duvall among many others, he casts his roles with the integrity of the film in mind as opposed to using it as an excuse to hang out with some old (albeit reliable) friends. Most of all though, "Argo" solidifies Ben Affleck as one of today's greatest filmmakers by providing one of the most compelling, intense and thoroughly enjoyable films of this year.

After a very informative narration that eloquently guides the viewer into the world and political climate of the times, the intensity kicks in almost immediately with a nail bitingly realistic recreation of the U.S. Embassy invasion of 1979. The entire sequence plays out in a way that wouldn't feel out of place in a standard horror film with a swarm of angry and heavily armed militants storming the courtyard and soon the inner halls of the embassy. Seeing the American workers scrambling to quickly dispose of any delicate documents, on site soldiers arming themselves and the look of impending doom appear on the faces of everyone in the building is a truly terrifying experience that will leave you breathless by the time it is all over. The deliberate absence of any semblance of a musical score also punctuates the terror in a way that you won't soon forget.

Ben Affleck takes this material and just completely owns it from beginning to end. This film could have easily come off the rails if not for his deft touch but thankfully he was up to the task. Alternating between tragedy, terror, humor, drama and absurdity on the fly is not an easy thing to attain let alone the difficulty in preventing any of it from clashing or feeling out of place when switching from one to the other. The scenes within the government walls with these highly educated and informed individuals playing it slightly casual while still maintaining a sense of urgency despite the completely ridiculous methods they are willing to entertain to bring home the six stranded Americans, the decidedly more lighthearted tone of the Hollywood sequences where they must force into production a fake film and the deadly serious segments with the six stranded Americans in Tehran all contrast each other with great ease.

What really makes everything gel together though is Affleck's dedication to authenticity. How he was able to recreate the places we visit is probably one of the most subtle visual tricks of the year, especially when we visit early 80's Hollywood. Details such as the burnt Hollywood sign, the Warner Brothers water tower or the Crossroads of the World building add immensely to the reality of this time and place. One of the better subtle touches is how the popularity of Star Wars at the time was used which helps sells the idea that this fake Sci-Fi movie idea (from a script called 'Argo') could actually work. This being Affleck's very first period piece, it is nothing short of stunning how well he captured that specific era in all its glory, bad hair and all.

Those authentic touches are invaluable in creating the realism that fuels the tense atmosphere that pervades throughout the rest of the film. The scenes in Washington and Hollywood have an urgency to them, but it is the moments we spend with the six stranded Americans that serve as a constant reminder of their impending doom. Seeing them locked up in a house together for months on end with an entire nation searching for them has them acting out in increasingly unstable fashions which degrades with each passing day. It's impossible to not become wrapped up in their personal safety and very easy to understand Mendez's position in all of this when he does finally meet them. Each of the actors balance their performances perfectly, alternating between annoying and logically frightened so that even when they doubt Mendez's plan, it isn't because they are being difficult, they know their chances of making it out of the country are slim and are simply afraid to die.

What really adds emotional weight behind all of this isn't so much the actors, the director or anyone involved in the making of the movie itself. It's that this insane mission actually happened and was sanctioned by our U.S. government. The fact that Mendez, in real life, actually did this is astonishing. The fact that anyone did ANY of this is beyond crazy. But that is what Affleck gets right the most, that feeling of being an outsider, that feeling of knowing at any moment you can die. When Mendez locates and contacts the stranded Americans, the film becomes this race against time where the players must be patient or risk losing their lives.

That is also the one area of "Argo" where Affleck gets a little too over zealous with the obstacles and the timelines of certain events occurring. All that tension built up over the course of the film is nearly sabotaged by his need to raise the stakes to almost absurd levels near the end. While the road home was almost certainly not an easy one, the amount of cliches thrown in during the final twenty minutes to create tension starts to feel artificial and threatens to undercut the realism the film had set up so well during its first two thirds. However, there is no denying that it is effective. After having the audience dig their nails into their seats as they wait and watch the events unfold before them, its hard not to get caught up in the drama of the moment and feel a sudden rush of relief when it is all over, which is yet another testament to Affleck's directorial prowess.

However, there is one last thing to nitpick and that is Affleck's persistence in casting himself in the lead role. Putting aside that he plays a Hispanic character and does absolutely nothing to try and sell you on this fact, he is the one person in the film that felt lacking in their performance. Now, this isn't going to suddenly turn into a Ben Affleck bashing session, but it's hard not to notice as you see him surrounded by other actors who are just nailing it every chance they get. He isn't necessarily bad in the role, he is just a little to cold and bland compared to the tense situations he is presented with. Whether or not he is accurately portraying Mendez is anyone's guess and whether or not he was just trying to show the character's confidence in what he was doing is besides the point, it remains a constant distraction to an otherwise flawless film.

Ben Affleck has come a long way over the years and with three equally strong films under his directorial belt he has affirmed his position as one of Hollywood's most talented filmmakers working today. "Argo" is a remarkable true story and an equally remarkable film. Affleck's expert direction pays its heroes the tribute they deserve by letting the viewer relive a moment in time that until a decade ago was kept hidden from the public. While it may veer off into some cliche territory near the end and feature a fairly underwhelming performance by Ben Affleck, there is no denying the powerful storytelling at work and the painstaking attention to detail used in the production to warp us back to a turbulent and heroic time in American history.





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