Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: "Argo" is an intense history lesson

Ben Affleck
The following review was originally published at CinemaBeach this past Thursday. Please feel free to visit the website and check out my other work, including reviews on former topics of The Oscar Buzz, including ParaNorman, Looper, and upcoming topic: Beasts of the Southern Wild. The website takes pride in giving you coverage of movies with an independent mindset as well as bigger films from authentic voices. Feel free to check out the other work and coverage of the movies as well as awards season in general. As for Argo's Oscar chances? I am almost sure that it will get Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations. I would like for Best Director, but we'll have to see the competition.

In an election year, it is easy to think of ways that the government has helped us. Still, more people will claim bigger influenced from movies. These two corporations butt heads every year to paint politicians in shining lights through biopics like J. Edgar and the Iron Lady, which often feel too timid to say something interesting. There is too much classified information to make the subjects credible. In director Ben Affleck’s Argo, he attempts to merge the two into a narrative about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Does he succeed in bringing the story to life, or is it just continuing proof that government operation stories are hiding the interesting facts?

Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert at the CIA. Upon the news of six American hostages in Iran, he starts setting up a rescue mission with a far-fetched scenario. The plan comes together after watching a Planet of the Apes sequel on TV. With the help of a fake studio film, they will infiltrate the country. With the help of CIA employee Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and studio figures Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), the story is a quick paced look at every step from incarnation to the triumphant conclusion.

Based on Chris Terrio’s 2007 Wired article “Escape from Tehran,” Argo is an intense ride through history. Luckily Affleck is at the helm with enough assurance to make it seem effortless. The opening scene alone depicts a director with a fine craft for creating tension as it quick cuts between a riot happening outside an American embassy and the people inside shredding incriminating documents. The pacing is tight, and not a single moment feels out-of-place. Affleck manages to do this at least two more times throughout the movie, which may qualify it too much as a thriller, but it provides the story with substance and high stakes.

The script by Joshua Bearman is also a secret weapon in Argo’s success. It manages to balance the line between humor and humanity without ruining the tone. The Hollywood side of the story is brought to life by Alan Arkin, whose brief screen time features him derailing cinema in his typical unimpressed veteran way. Along with John Goodman, he is shouting out one-liners that manage to signify Hollywood’s problems and his doubt for the mission. The Iranian side is a little more serious, yet Ben Affleck has plenty of moments that exemplify wit. Bearman’s script is bursting with personality and ideas, which gives the film some authenticity.

Left to right: John Goodman and Alan Arkin
While small liberties were taken to alter the story, its dedication to facts gives this film a 70’s feel. This also includes the ridiculous haircuts and wardrobe choices. These characters look like they were out of Serpico and All the President’s Men, and it lacks the sense of novelty that most modern throwback films feature. Another nice touch is archival footage of news reports and a brief voice over by Jimmy Carter that shows that Affleck and his team put some effort into making this look reminiscent of the 70’s. Because of this, it feels like his most realized film to date.

If the film suffers any problems, it is the acting. While there isn't a single performance that’s terrible, there also not too many that stood out. While Arkin is the best part, it still feels like a typical Arkin character. Affleck feels very reserved and the role lacks showiness. As the lead, this can create conflict with maintaining momentum. As typical and neurotic as the hostages come across, they manage to keep the movie afloat as the film enters an intriguing and very intense third act. The other CIA figures are the most troublesome, who are only used to rush to the phones to break important news.

While it is also the film’s benefit, the amount of assurance in the story is detrimental at times. The tale has a lot of twists and continually keeps the audience intrigued, but the execution seems so flawless that it often feels like little effort was put into it. It is the one aspect that made the great direction and style of the film turn into a really good movie. It manages to mesh the Hollywood and government stories well, but in the end, the plot points feel familiar enough that it underwhelms everything else.

If there is anything to be taken away from Argo, it is that Ben Affleck is a very talented director. He can shoot tension and period pieces with such a master craft that all faults can be ignored. This is an entertaining tale that is consistently intense and never feels like political propaganda. With an excellent script by Joshua Bearman, it is a solid look into an often forgotten time in history that has since been considered the best example of international communication. It may be a little too self-assured, but it never rings false. Argo is a film that doesn’t sugarcoat the subject to win favors, but tells the story and shows just how cinema and politics can get along without looking stupid.

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