Friday, October 19, 2012

Affleck's 'Argo' a taut look at a little known part of history

Based on a true story is often a dubious statement. Many films make that claim and take a kernel of truth and expand it to the point of being a mere shadow of reality. In "Argo," Ben Affleck's third film as a director, some liberties are taken in telling an obscure bit of history, but the most absurd elements are the parts that 100 percent true.

"Argo" takes place during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/1980. For 444 days 52 Americans were held hostage after the seizure of the American Embassy. Six Americans managed to escape before the takeover and were left bouncing between houses before being taken in by the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). After several months of hiding, it became clear they wouldn't be safe much longer and the United States government needed a plan to get them out of Iran safely.

Here's where life becomes stranger than fiction. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent known for getting people out of high-risk situations, concocted a plan to use his contacts in Hollywood to set up a fake production company and go into Tehran under the cover of a Canadian film producer scouting a sci-fi film called "Argo." The six Americans would take on the cover of the rest of his crew.

The story was classified until 1997 and wasn't made public until a 2007 article in Wired magazine. There was an almost immediate interest in turning the story into a film, with George Clooney initially set to write and produce the film. Clooney eventually just took on the role of producer with writing duties being given to Chris Terrio.

Affleck stepped into the director's seat and he has delivered a near perfect thriller that relies on wit and intelligence over gunfire and explosions. He seamlessly blends archival news footage with a striking recreation of the seizure of the American Embassy. The look of the film emulates the style of gritty 1970s films, which helps in creating an authentic atmosphere.

The pacing of the film is just right, with slow-building tension that reaches a peak when Mendez and the six Americans make their way through the airport. The climax has far more close calls of trying to get past Iranian security than reality had, but it does make for exciting and highly entertaining film-going experience. For the most part, this is a faithful presentation of what happened, and, while Affleck and Terrio do embellish the truth toward the end, they thankfully stop short of going over-the-top Hollywood style.

Terrio's screenplay is light on characterization, but is a precise, well-oiled machine full of surprising moments of wit. The material back in Hollywood has a sharp satirical edge that is enhanced by John Goodman as real life make-artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as a fictionalized producer.

Goodman and Arkin provide the film with some much needed comic relief that helps to break up the relentless building tension. Affleck doesn't let the humor undermine the seriousness of the situation, but provides just enough to supply a necessary release. Goodman and Arkin are both wonderful.

Affleck, as an actor, gives a quiet, nuanced, non-showy performance. Some could complain he is too flat, but that's the point. Mendez is a man you're not suppose to notice. He simply comes in and efficiently gets the job done. The same can be said of Affleck's performance.

The six Americans are played by largely unknowns and a few familiar faces such as Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall, but no big names. This was the right choice as huge stars may have distracted from the realism that Affleck effectively achieved throughout the film.

Bryan Cranston gets a juicy role as Affleck's boss in the CIA. He provides the film with some gravitas as well as some nice cynical line readings.

This is thoroughly engaging film worth seeing as both a piece of entertainment and as a spotlight on a bit history that doesn't get discussed enough.

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