Friday, October 19, 2012

Argo: Back to the ‘70s Politically and Culturally

     Argo lives beyond its preview expectations and is both an understated exploration of Western powers’ cooperation in the face of Middle Eastern rage and a crackerjack thriller even though the audience knows the outcome.  CIA agent Tony Mendez worked out a wild plan to get six U.S. diplomats, who’d
escaped the Embassy compound before fifty-two others were taken as hostages, out of Iran with the assistance of the Canadian ambassador and the Canadian government. This movie possesses the intelligence, suspense, carefully wrought period production design, and stylized realistic dialogue and acting that is the basis of the ‘docudrama’ genre and specifically of Zodiac or United 93.  One disappointment about Argo is that it lost first place in its opening weekend to Taken 2.  

Dexter Helps Out Behind the Camera
     The most significant element is Ben Affleck’s direction and, with this movie, he leaps into the first ranks of action and dramatic directors.  We didn’t see The Town, though it looked pretty thrilling.  Gone Baby Gone was an excellent debut and he worked well with actors, eliciting the best performance I’ve seen out of his brother Casey Affleck and a completely original portrait by Amy Ryan of a selfish, desperate, drug addicted mother searching for her daughter.  Affleck gives a subtle, completely lived-in performance of a quietly heroic public servant (and spy), who has everything to lose and doesn’t give a damn.  It isn’t overstating the role to say that in different eras and in different stylistic contexts, Gene Hackman or Humphrey Bogart would have leapt at this.  It is a legitimate concern that Affleck cast himself and not a Hispanic or Latino actor as Tony Mendez.

The Cast of Diplomats
     Affleck’s overseeing of Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and William Goldenberg’s editing results in a vision that seems to be the actual events in motion.  We stayed to see where it was shot because it looked eerily close to the locations where the story actually happened.  I hope that Affleck doesn’t sell out for a $150 million cartoon superhero action adventure blockbuster that even serious critics will pretend speaks about elemental (usually just elementary) issues and speaks with great simplicity (really simplemindedness) about major themes (or the same old crap superhero have been selling for over thirty years) and can keep working with moderate budgets about characters that look, act, behave as complex humans.  

John Goodman, Alan Arkin,
and Ben Affleck
     The rest of the cast is excellent and there isn’t a false note in the acting.  John Goodman as veteran Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, who helped Mendez put together the sci-fi movie location scouting cover story, and Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor are both notable.  The casting director was right on (yeah, it’s the ‘70s all right), especially in matching the six actors almost exactly to the actual escaped diplomats.  

     Chris Terrio wrote the script that shapes and streamlines what sounds like a shaggy dog story into a work of psychological and political suspense.  He thoroughly fills in the details of a complex situation within forty-five minutes.  The Heights was his overlooked, but very worthy writer-director debut from 2005. 

     As usual, the audience at Kenwood/Esquire/Mariemont needs a note.  Neil said, “it’s an older audience than I expected,” and I replied, “they actually remember the 1970s and what a ‘70s movie was like.”   At the end, an older lady was holding court behind us with her friends and she opined that a quick shot where Affleck was putting on a shirt was showboating.  I thought it made sense in terms of the character and the scene and it was a brief flash of eye candy, but that was about the only thing anyone might find fault with in Argo.

I get in some scrapes, but this one sounds really claw-biting!

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