Friday, October 12, 2012

Argo: In Iran, There Are No Second Takes

It was a time of malaise.  In 1979, the iconic Hollywood sign had fallen into a state of disrepair, but there was still a patriotic old guard willing to invest their time and reputations in a film that would never be made, for the sake of their country.  Recruited by CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez, two movie industry veterans provided the cover for a long classified rescue operation.  During the Iranian hostage crisis, the Canadian ambassador furtively sheltered six U.S. embassy employees, at considerable personal risk.  Mendez devised a plan to fly them out in broad daylight, posing as crew members of a Star Wars knock-off.  Their stranger-than-fiction mission has become Ben Affleck’s Oscar contending Argo (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In its opening voiceover narration, Argo makes it clear everything that happened in Iran was the fault of America and Great Britain, because we supported the Shah.  After we are properly chastised, Argo then admits the early days of the Islamic Revolutionary regime were little more than a reign of terror, culminating with the seizure of the American embassy, in gross violation of international law.  Carefully modeled on actual news footage, these occupation sequences are a harrowing depiction of mass fanaticism at its most savage, but also highly cinematic.

Caught flat-footed, the Carter Administration (which had pressured the Shah to abdicate, assuming the Ayatollah would mellow once entrusted with power) is at a total loss.  The Canadian Ambassador simply cannot shelter his “house guests” indefinitely and it is only a matter of time before the hostage takers realize they are short six Foreign Service Officers.  Most of the proposed action plans bear little or no relation to the on-the-ground realities.  Of course, Mendez does not have any better ideas, until he thinks of make-up artist John Chambers, the man who created Spock’s ears, who secretly volunteers his “transformative” services to the CIA.

The plan is daring in its conception.  Mendez will enter Iran via Canada on the pretext that he is scouting locations for a sci-fi epic set on a rather Persian looking alien world.  A few days later, he simply flies out again with six of his crew members.  Of course, it is rather more complicated than that.  To be credible, Argo, as the non-film within the film is titled, must have legit names attached to it and generate some trade press.  Old school producer Lester Siegel can take care of that.

Argo really packs a punch when conveying the overwhelming oppressiveness and paranoia of Revolutionary Iran.  The atmosphere is truly overpowering and profoundly scary.  Yet, Affleck effectively breaks up the mood with the Sorkinesque absurdities of the Carter Administration and the outright comic relief provided by Siegel and Chambers.  However, their “kvetching for freedom” never feels overly silly or forced.  Instead, viewers clearly understand these old cats are used to dealing with serious situations through humor.

As Mendez, Ben Affleck broods and bluffs convincingly enough, but his work on the other side of the camera far more distinctive.  John Goodman and Alan Arkin are absolutely perfect as the real life Chambers and the composite-figure Siegel.  They both deliver zingers like the old pros they are, while still projecting an unabashed love of country that is quite endearing.  Yet, Bryan Cranston gets some of the film’s sharpest lines as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s superior at the Agency.

Aside from the audio from a ridiculously self-serving interview with Jimmy Carter heard during the closing credits, the sure-footed Affleck avoids politicizing his tight narrative.  He keeps the tension cranked up, but has the good sense to unleash his colorful supporting cast.  Given the presumed field of Oscar candidates, it probably deserves to be in the mix.  Recommended for those fascinated with the history of espionage, Argo opens today (10/12) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.