MOVIE – “Argo”
DIRECTOR – Ben Affleck
WRITER – Chris Terrio (screenplay), Joshuah Bearman (article)
SIX DEGREES OF CAST & CREW
–Argo has a strong connection to the television show “Damages.” Four of the cast of Argo, John Goodman (John Chambers), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Chris Messina (Malinov), and the awesomely named Zeljko Ivanek (Robert Pender) have all had major roles on the program.
–The fictional movie Argo is based off the Roger Zelazny book “Lord of Light.” The man who did the storyboards for Lord of Light, and the man who did the storyboards for the fictional Argo, is Jack Kirby, who any comic book fan will know as the man who invented or co‑invented Captain America, The Fantastic Four, the X‑Men, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, The Avengers as a team, Black Panther, and pretty much the entire golden age of comic books. In this film, he’s played by Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Kill Bill,” and “Grindhouse.” Meanwhile, the real‑life John Coleman is the special effects genius behind the original “Planet of the Apes” series and the man who created Spock’s pointy ears. Producer Lester Siegel (as played by Alan Arkin) is fictional.
–Speaking of fictional, the man playing the Minotaur in Chambers’ special effects introduction is Scott Anthony Leet, a former professional football punter for the NFL’s St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys. The woman behind the makeup as Serksi the Gallactic Witch, aka Nina, is none other than genre legend Adrienne Barbeau, who worked with Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek) on the brilliant “Carnivale.”
On November 4, 1979, armed militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran,Iran, and took 66 people hostages. Of the originals captured, 13 women and minorities were released after a few weeks, one man was released after suffering complications related to multiple sclerosis, and 52 were held as hostages by the Iranians for a staggering 444 days. However, not all employees of the embassy were captured. Six of the workers, who were in the visa department and had direct access to the street, escaped the terror and beatings into the streets of Iran’s capital. The crew eventually found safety in the embassy of Canada, while all around them Americans were being kidnapped and tortured, bloody reprisals and executions were being carried out, and Iran was in a state of carnage.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is the CIA’s top exfiltration expert. That means he gets people out of hostile countries for a living, creates forged documents, and generally works as a problem solver in an agency with a lot of problems to solve. When his superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) asks him to sit in on a State Department meeting about how best to get the missing six out ofIranwith their heads attached, Mendez comes up with a brilliant idea: the six are part of a Canadian film crew shooting a science fiction movie.
That gives Tony a matter of days to put together a fake movie with the help of some real-life Hollywood friends in the form of special effects and makeup genius John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The three have only a few days to put together a movie and somehow create a convincing enough story to get six people out of one of the most dangerous situations imaginable. While history shows that the Canadian caper was successful, the hows are what make Argo such a fascinating, enthralling film.
Argo is based on a true story. Antonio J. Mendez wrote the book The Master of Disguise about his career as a CIA extraction expert, and a section on the 1979 escape that would become Argo was excerpted in a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman. Those things formed the basis of the story scripted by Chris Terrio. Terrio, who has no other major credits, has done a great job bringing the book to the screen, but it’s the skill of Ben Affleck that really brings the truth to life. Other great real-life stories have been adapted into movies that failed, but Affleck and Terrio do not let this story down.
Ben Affleck the director is absolutely brilliant. To call him one of the best directors working seems like too much praise, but given how he’s been working and how good his projects have been behind the camera, I don’t think it’s excessive. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten better as an actor, but as a director, he’s top-notch. Argo is both funny and suspenseful in turn, with the opening and closing reels of the film offering up teeth-grinding levels of suspense and the Hollywood sections of the film provoking gales of laughter. The interplay between tension in Iran and laughter in Studio City is perfect at building up and breaking tension, without breaking the action.
The comedy was a pleasant surprise; John Goodman and Alan Arkin are brilliant, with Arkin stealing scene after scene as irascible film producer Lester Siegel. The hostages, given their 70’s hair and distracting facial mustaches, don’t get a lot of chances to stand out, but they’re all good, especially Clea DuVall and Christopher Denham as Cora and Mark Lijek, two of the six embassy employees. Bryan Cranston is always good, and Ben Affleck seems to be better when he directs himself than when he’s directed by people not Gus Van Sant. He puts in a great performance, both in front of and behind the camera.
While Argo the fictional project would not have won any awards, Argo the movie about the movie just might. From beginning to end, this is a stellar film. Good performances are buttressed by brilliant editing, stunning cinematography, and a substance that belies the style used in putting the film together. It looks and feels like an authentic 70’s movie—Affleck filmed on normal film stock, chopped the frames in half, and blew up the results to 200 percent to give the film more graininess—and the scenes that he cribbed from “All The President’s Men” and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” are supported by the stellar ending race from Iranian authorities that is as suspenseful and well-crafted as any movie chase ever filmed.
RATING – 4.5 awesome 70’s haircuts out of 5