Friday, November 23, 2012

ARGO Really Is as Good as They Say

If you're already bored by eating and shopping, and you're looking to do something else with what's left of your Thanksgiving break, the movie Argo may just be the answer. Who doesn't need to fight those tryptophans and keep the ol' brain working?

Argo is a Ben Affleck project, with Mr. Affleck directing and starring in this "based on true events" trip back to the late 70s. No, he doesn't look like Tony Mendez, the real CIA master-of-disguise/"extraction" expert he portrays, the hero behind a secret, dangerous and very creative mission to get six U.S. embassy employees out of Iran. Those six had managed to slip out of the embassy as Iranian militants seized the place and took everybody still there hostage. Once out, the six found sanctuary in the basement of the Canadian embassy, but that wasn't safe, either, and the CIA knew they had to find a way to sneak them out of Iran completely. But how?

Poster for the fake Argo movie.
Mendez's plan was to pretend that a campy science fiction movie was being made, complete with storyboards and posters and ads in the trades, and then get to Iran to pretend to scout for locations for the fake movie. He came up with identities (and Canadian passports) for the six Americans, so that they could pose as his fake Canadian film crew and leave Iran when he did. It sounds crazy and impossible. And yet that's exactly what happened in 1979. The true story of the CIA's involvement was classified for years after the operation, and a cover story, that the escape had all been the work of friendly Canadians, was promoted. There was even a Canadian TV movie telling that tale in 1981.

If Affleck doesn't look like Mendez, he has the untidy hair and beard to look decidedly 70s-ish, and it's clear that somebody made a concerted effort to find actors who resembled the other historical personages in the story. We get to see all the real people at the end, with their photos compared to the actors who've played them. Those actors include Christopher Denham, a U of I grad who played a lot of roles onstage at Krannert Center, including Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, as Mark Lijek, one of the American diplomatic personnel shepherded out by Mendez.

Seeing this kind of movie is weird if you lived through those times. And, yes, I was there in the 70s. Yes, I remember the Iranian hostage crisis that Argo centers on. I remember going to the courthouse with a friend to finalize her divorce in January, 1981, and seeing a sign that said "Free at last!" outside the courthouse, as the people at the mall next door celebrated the end of the long hostage ordeal by putting letters up on their marquee. I remember that my friend started to laugh at that "Free at last!" sign and how appropriate it was for her own situation.

Hamilton Jordan
Kyle Chandler

I also remember Hamilton Jordan, adviser to Jimmy Carter, although I've certainly never considered whether he resembled Kyle Chandler, who plays Jordan in the movie. There are so many good actors peppered through Argo that you have to work hard not to call out, "Oooh, John Goodman! Alan Arkin! Bryan Cranston! Victor Garber! Zeljko Ivanek! Richard Kind! Richard Dillane! Titus Welliver! Phillip Baker Hall!" as they roll past.

Better to fall into the movie's world and forget you recognize all those faces. Because the story is plenty gripping and suspenseful without Hey, It's That Guy! games.

It doesn't matter if you remember how the real plot turned out or even if you're aware in what respects the movie veers away from the facts. You'll still be biting your nails, desperate to know if these six regular joes can get to the airport and out of Iran before anybody figures out who they are and where they are.

Affleck has crafted a jittery, nervy film, fast enough and skillful enough to pull you along, set up the dominoes and knock them all down, with just enough humor on the Hollywood side of the equation to make sure the story never lags. Goodman and Arkin are great as the makeup artist and producer who collaborate on the fictional movie, and I won't be surprised if Arkin nabs another Oscar for his role.

I also liked Denham, Clea DuVall, who plays his wife, and an up-and-comer named Scoot McNairy as the least obliging of the captives.

Argo is based on a real story, of course, as told by Joshua Bearman in Wired magazine. Some of the details were modified by screenwriter Chris Terrio to make a better script, but the real deal is pretty entertaining. If you want to read more about it after seeing the movie, just click on the link earlier in this paragraph. Bearman's piece is terrific.

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