Friday, October 12, 2012
Usually, when a movie declares that it's "based on a true story," it already feels patently false. That phrase is usually code for, "We based the idea on reality, but then made the rest of it up." Argo is based on the declassified true story of a CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who concocted a harebrained scheme to free six Americans from Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis. He actually told the Iranians they were a Canadian filmmaking crew scouting locations for a cheeseball sci-fi movie. I defy even the most imaginative novel writer to hatch such a plot.
Working from a great screenplay by Chris Terrio, Ben Affleck cements his status as a great actor-director. Showing great promise with his debut, Gone Baby Gone, then skillfully refining his craft with The Town, Affleck progresses to his most impressive feat of all: making a crackling thriller-comedy.
Yes, comedy. Of course, there's nothing funny at all about the Iranian hostage crisis. But there is something morbidly amusing about how this rescue unfolded. Consider that one of the operatives was makeup man John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes. He's played by the always terrific John Goodman, who cracks that the target audience of a movie is "people with eyes." Matching Goodman zinger for zinger is Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel, who boasts that he knows Warren Beatty because he "took a leak next to him at the Golden Globes."
Juxtaposing these wiseacres with a perilous life or death rescue mission could have derailed the movie, but Affleck masterfully balances the tones. Not only does he shoot logistically complex sequences with painstaking historical detail, but he knows just when to release the tension with a well-timed joke. And in so doing, Affleck gets inside the wonder of movies as a whole. He shows how the movies are so captivating, the allure of even a fake one is enough to deter hostile Iranian guards. I daresay the mix of suspense and humor is on the level of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. I can only applaud a movie that throws in a reference to Muppets Statler and Waldorf.
Comparing Affleck to Kubrick is high praise indeed, but that's just how impressive Affleck's skills have become. I've already seen the movie twice, projected digitally both times. Yet Affleck fills the opening titles with the kind of speckles you'd see on a movie print from the 70s. Those don't appear in digital projection unless you put them there. So even the technical BS is a marvel. Maybe Argo fudges a few details to pump up the drama, but when the very subject of a movie is the art of lying, such deceit is commendable.