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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo

ARGO

"It's the best bad idea we have, sir. By far."

** SPOILERS **

Argo should come with a seal: Ben's Best. His third feature film as a director, Ben Affleck knocks Argo out of the proverbial ballpark, delivering his best movie yet. Set in the days of the Iran Hostage Crisis circa 1979-1980, Argo is a smart, scintillating, crowd-pleaser; it's one of the finest examples of highest quality Hollywood-style docu-drama-thriller filmmaking in many moons. Opening with a savvy info dump on the political situation in Iran in 1979 and the US' role in Iranian hostilities, the immersive Argo ratchets up the tension right away as the US Embassy is under siege by Iranian protestors. Most of the Americans are taken as hostages but six Embassy workers (played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Christopher Denham) manage to escape and secretly seek asylum as "houseguests" of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber).

The CIA decides to find a way to smuggle those six to the US, but can't agree on a bad idea to accomplish this impossible feat until a bearded, hangdog, somnambular Affleck, playing an "exfiltration" specialist named Tony Mendez (field name "Kevin Harkin"), comes up with a doozy of a plan: pose the six hostages as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran and get them out on a commercial flight. Argo then shifts to a hilarious send up of Hollywood movie making as Affleck recruits producers John Goodman and Alan Arkin to help him create the cover of a fake movie to fake-scout in Iran.

They choose "Argo", an unproduced B-level science fiction screenplay that they sell to the media with a script readthrough complete with C-movie actors in costumes (actual get ups from real life sci-fi hilarities of that era like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 25 Century are worn in Argo). The Hollywood sequences, depicting Burbank and Los Angeles of 1980 complete with a ravaged, pre-restoration Hollywood sign, inject gleeful one-liners (the catchphrase "Argo fuck yourself" is coined by Arkin) and a welcome dose of levity, several spoonfuls of sugar before the action returns to the tension in Iran.

Once in Iran, Affleck has the expected trouble getting the six frightened Embassy workers to go along with their new covers of being Canadian filmmakers. It's a steep learning curve of only a couple of days; Scoot McNairy's character is especially terrified of getting caught and mistrustful of Affleck. ("Is Kevin Harkin your real name?" "No.") Time's running out, though, as the Iranian government concurrently realizes six names are missing from the hostages being held in the US Embassy, and Garber's own housekeeper figures out her employer's house guests are not who they say they are. With the screws tightening and the Jimmy Carter administration deciding to abort the mission, against the protests of Affleck's supervisor Bryan Cranston, Affleck gives himself the go-ahead to see his desperate gambit through.

Though the outcome is history and never in doubt, it's a testament to the razor-sharp screenplay by Chris Terrio and Affleck's blossomed skills as a filmmaker how Argo mounts an intense, pulse-pounding third act where he and his team barely escape capture by the Iranian death squads by the skin of their teeth - right down the heretofore resistant McNairy shocking everyone by expertly pulling off his cover and fooling the police detaining them, to the very-last-second getaway of their plane lifting off while being chased by police cars and army keeps down the airport runway.

Argo is especially and rightfully proud of its persuasive, flawless production design, recreating life in the US and Iran over thirty years ago with startling verisimilitude. Argo even presents side by side photographs of the real people and the brilliantly cast actors portraying them over the closing credits, boastfully showing off its uncanny, sure to be Oscar-nominated accuracy in casting and hair, makeup, and costume design. (Ben Affleck exempts himself from photographic comparison to the real Tony Mendez.) Argo is easily one of the most enjoyable and finest motion pictures of 2012. Frankly, if you don't like Argo, you can Argo fuck yourself.

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