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|Cinema Signal: Excruciating suspense in a story based on a real hostage extraction gives this a green light. Go!||MOBILE: variagate.com/cinsigsm.htm?mobi ||
What Ben Affleck has proven again with this directing and acting project is that a film by him is a movie event that shouldn't be missed. From my point of view, his 2010 "The Town" proved it and should have received a Best Pic nomination that year. With "Argo," based on a true story, he builds excruciating suspense despite the fact that the outcome is well known. It is, after all, history. And Affleck has another chance at recognition and the depth of his talents.
Because the backside of the embassy faces the street, six American embassy workers manage to get out before being taken hostage with their 52 other colleagues, and wind up as guests of the Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) at his home. And there they will remain in secrecy until a way out of the country can be found.
In a tense, high level meeting of the CIA, every idea for an extraction is brought up and shot down, exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) chief among them for spotting the weakness of the plans suggested. But later, at home, catching a piece of "Planet of the Apes" on TV, he comes up with something as cookoo as it is daring. If he could create the illusion that he was part of a film crew scouting locations for a film, and that the six Americans are his Cnadian crew, and if the charade were convincing enough to get past Iranian checkpoints, such as customs and the highly volatile National Guard, a flight out of Iran might be pulled off.
Well, when you come to Hollywood to produce a fake, you're in the right place. And, as soon as makeup man supreme John Chambers (John Goodman) understands the challenge, and corrals producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) for the pseudo-production part, things start rolling in a new corner of make-believe, down to taking a full page ad in Daily Variety, making up storyboards and other evidence of an earnestly real project. The preparations for it are, at times, hilarious.
From here, the story is told in three parts. The agency, the politics and a brilliantly staged rendering of 1979 Tehran done in Istanbul which, by the way, is so scary, what with bodies hanging off lampposts and the like and men you'd swear had fundamentalist fervor on their minds, that tension is present at every turn.
Intercutting the progression there with the home base support of Chambers and Siegel is where Affleck allows sardonic humor to relieve the cold Iranian realities. This goes all the way to parodying the name of the project (and the film) with an XXX phrase which, since this is a family site, can't be repeated here.
Tony Mendez is, of course, the anchor of the grueling events as hope builds and vanishes, keeping his cool, letting his wards know that "this is what I do," trying to convince the party of escapees to trust his faith in the scheme. Affleck wisely (as a director) and instinctively (as an actor) puts on a mask of non-expression to the greatest degree necessary, breaking his facade passivity with the slightest changes that play the emotional spectrum from fear to relief -- all held in internal tension. The one scene in which we see his human side is in the phone call to his young son who is living with his mother in a trial separation. Mendez is a man whose greatest personal desire is to put his family back together again.
The Hollywood part is rife with inside the industry jokes, none of which went unappreciated by the show business audience at the screening I attended. Something tells me that a good deal of these references will go over the heads of many an audience member.
The climax is edited with frame to frame timing to provoke the greatest amount of electrigying intensity. When you can do this with a story whose ending is known, you're on the right track. Which is not to say that liberties weren't taken with the facts. You do have to take the randomness of real events to forge a story into a dramatic synthesis of any historical occurence, however remarkable for its achievement and execution.
If there's one weakness in the film, it's the limited connection we make to the survivors, who come off as distrustful, combative, unappreciative doubters. Of course, these are the wages of fear and the cause of fear is palpable. I recognize the truthfulness of the characterizations. It's just that, in a story, you want to bond with the people you're trying to rescue. I gather that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, whose first feature writing assignment this is, went for the genuine in this depiction, and that's worth appreciating.
Which brings me to the part of Sahar (Sheila Vand) as the Canadian host's Iranian housekeeper who comes to realize exactly who these houseguests are. Though the role might go unremarked for its apparent minor importance, it says quite a bit about where a typical Iranian, who takes no part in the fundamentalist excesses of the loudest and most threatening in the society, might choose not to expose the Americans nor her Canadian boss. It's a fine piece of observation and meaning on the part of the filmmakers.
In style and content, this is comparable to the unending number of films that have depicted harborers of Jewish excapees during World War II. One might ask why this part of the hostage crisis is coming to light now? The answer is interesing and illuminating. Until recently, the hoax upon terrorist state has been top secret and concealed from the public. Who says Hollywood can't keep a secret?
More fascinating details emerge. Canada's official sanction of their diplomat's highly dangerous protection and extraction of the Americans and becoming part of the movie charade cemented further the mutual regard between our two states. The Iranian power centers and religious fervor looking as extreme today as it did then. Against a black background during the end titles, A narrative voice explains a few things about the incident. A very knowledgeable voice and one that some of us will instantly recognize. Jimmy Carter's.
If anyone's thinking that Ben Affleck is a multi-talented, modern day Orson Welles, I know what you're saying. Time will tell if he'll do a "Citizen Kane," but miracles are born of a string of successes.
~~ Jules Brenner