Argo – Ben Affleck – 2012

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Ben Affleck’s Argo is nothing short of a classic. The film bleeds cinema with its’ taut structure, crisp pace and nail-biting suspense. The language of cinema has evolved until this type of editing and storytelling is as cutting-edge as it gets. Affleck and his editors have us in the palm of their hand. The film is fun and funny and intense and dark. What a feat to have your cake and eat it too. It juggles these tones without ever sacrificing characterization for artifice and you never feel as though you know what is going to happen, even though you do.

I’d like to point out that maybe George Lucas’ prequels could have benefited from a structure like this, even though we know Anakin ends up Vader, the entire proceedings could have been a devastating argument for him almost not becoming Vader, and only being crushed into it by inevitability. Instead we get a plot telegraphed so obviously it might as well have been a third grader nailing a kickball down the third base line. I digress.

Argo concerns CIA man Tony Mendez, who concerns himself with getting some employees of the stormed US embassy out of Tehran. His plan involves creating a fictional, Hollywood production, a sci-fi film titled Argo. In order to sell this lie, he goes to LA and basically goes through the motions of producing a film with makeup man John Goodman and producer Alan Arkin. These two and the Hollywood side of the plot are quite funny and Arkin is especially funny and heart-felt, for a Hollywood producer type.

The Tehran stuff is so scary and suspenseful I could barely stand it. Hitchcock would be proud. The film is basically like watching the Christians walk around the lions den with raw meat around their neck while the Lions sniff and paw and gape wide their jaws, but somehow, (Grace?, The CIA?), they are not eaten. They escape the den, but boy is it harrowing.

Affleck is affable as Mendez, and his serious yet humane demeanor is key in leading a squad of civilians through what is essentially a military rescue. Only the bad guys have guns and they don’t. All they have is Argo.

The civilians are good. These people aren’t stars and they each give great performances, every one feeling not only authentic but in fact I feel like I know proxy versions of these characters in my real life. It could be any of us.

The film climaxes and knocks it’s best theme home when the most cowardly of the civilians, and the one who speaks Farsi must convince the airport guards to let them board the plane. There are no subtitles, but the man shows these armed guards storyboards and flies his hand around like a spaceship and we get that he’s telling them, we’re going to come and make Arab Star Wars for you guys and you’re going to love it. The non-actors playing the guards are enchanted by the idea of Arab Star Wars, and who wouldn’t be.

During this scene Affleck throws the kitchen sink at the crew, and we feel like the other shoe will drop any minute. There are simply too many factors for them all to go right. He wrings unbearable tension out of this scene. You know in Indiana Jones films where he leaves his hat under a closing, stone door, and we cut from him to the door again and again, and you’re like, “Way too much time has past! He’ll lose his arm reaching in there!”, that’s basically the last half hour of Argo. It’s amazing.

I have to say, if I was Iranian, I might take offense to the film, its’ portrayal of Muslims and of the period in general is nightmarish, but it offers a few examples of very humane Muslims as well such as the Canadian Ambassadors housekeeper, the head of the Tehran Film Commission and even the soldiers at the end, enchanted by the fact that storytelling and fantasy might come to life in their land.

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