Monday, October 15, 2012

Argo



ARGO: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman (120 min.)

Argo tells us a few things, both as a history lesson and as a testament to competent and succinct filmmaking.  It is, at times, a nerve-jangling film about the rescue of six Americans during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.  At times the story meanders towards a conclusion, but there is no denying the fact that Ben Affleck is going to be one of our better American directors when all is said and done.  With Argo, he steps out of his native Boston neighborhood and shows that he has much more than one trick in his bag.  This is an incredible true story, but maybe it is not the most incredibly film able story.

The time is late in 1979, and political strife and civil unrest leads the Iranian people to storm the walls of the American Embassy in Tehran and take hostages.  Only six of the Americans escape and take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), stuck and without a plan out of the country that does not include being dragged into the street and executed.  The sextet of hideouts include some recognizable faces and solid character actors including Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, and Christopher Denham.  The CIA becomes involved, and once they get wind of the six escapees they try, fruitlessly, to devise a plan to extract the six Americans.  Everything from a pitiful bicycle plan to an English-teacher cover is considered, but nothing works.

The head of the operation, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston, finally getting a supporting role to sink his teeth into), brings in Tony Mendez (Affleck) to think of a better idea.  Mendez specializes in extracting citizens from sticky situations, and even he is stuck on a solution until, one night, he is talking to his son on the phone.  His son is watching one of the endless Planet of The Apes sequels, set on a desert landscape, and inspiration strikes Tony.  He will create a fake movie and get the Americans out of harm's way under the guise of being a film crew.

The plan is so outlandish and preposterous... wait for it... it just might work.  Mendez heads to Hollywood and employs John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist playedby John Goodman, to put together the details.  Mendez and Chambers tap the resources of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a legendary film producer.  A barren,desert sci-fi screenplay is optioned, ads are taken out in Variety, the press is invited to a reading, and so on and so forth.  A fake office is even made for the fake studio.  Now comes the hard part. 

The tension mounts in the final act of Argo to a point where I found myself mesmerized by the tension of the extraction.  Affleck manages the small delays, the car not starting and the ringing phone needing an answer, as well as anyone could in this situation.  I just found the midsection of the film too laborious.  Early on, when the film is coming together out in Hollywood, the energy and panache of Goodman and Arkin carry the film through.  And of course the final act is a collection of thrills.  But getting from point A to point B feels soggy and much too cumbersome.  Perhaps it's the lack of interest I found in the six escapees, none of whom I cared for one way or another.  I kept wondering about the hundreds of hostages in the Embassy.

The details in Argo are wonderful; I cannot imagine a better more accurate film of the time between late 1979 and early 1980.  And Affleck, as I mentioned, will win at least one directing Oscar in the future.  He may even win this year, although I don't think he should.  And something should be said of his ability to fill even the smallest roles with respected and interesting character performers.  I liked Argo, I respected Argo.  But I simply did not love it.

B-