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MANILA, Philippines - Pearl Harbor, J-Lo, Gigli: actor Ben Affleck has had his share of mishaps.
And these seem to have served him well; for as a director, Affleck has avoided sucking like the plague.
His directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone made critics quip that Affleck is better off off-camera.
His next helming stint, 2010’s The Town, a two-and-a-half-hour tour de force, was an even bigger thrill. For it he also regained the confidence to topbill a movie again.
Now comes Argo, arguably his best offering yet, and one that also helps kick off the annual Oscar-bait season.
Yet whether or not this 2012 film ends up nominated for next year’s Academy Awards is immaterial right now.
What matters is that it is worth your moviegoing dough.
No disco, all inferno
Argo takes us back to a politically tumultuous, real-life November 1979:
While America is basking in disco, it's an inferno in Iran, where a popular revolution is approaching boiling point — enraged citizens are pounding on the US embassy in Tehran, demanding for the repatriation of their much reviled Shah, who is on medical exile in North America.
The militants manage to invade the embassy and hold all but 6 employees hostage; the lucky half dozen fleeing and finding refuge in the residence of receptive Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
With the Jimmy Carter administration unwilling to give in to the Iranians’ demands, the Central Intelligence Agency gets tasked with spiriting the 6 out of the country before they end up in the hands of the seething locals, who tend to define justice with some rope and a construction crane.
Those familiar with the Iran hostage crisis from the news of 1980 or who have beheld related accounts in the ensuing years might dismiss Argo as an I-know-I-know affair.
Yet Argo remains interesting as it concentrates on a formerly classified CIA rescue mission: the Agency’s top “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), with the help of a pair of Hollywood insiders, flies to Tehran to extract the 6 by pretending to be working on a new sci-fi flick titled Argo, and that the evacuees are part of his movie’s crew.
Indeed, the sci-fi movie is fake, but the high-wire mission is real.
Ah, the 1970s
One of the perks of being an Argo viewer is the sensory joy of reliving the sassy ’70s via the movie’s period details — starting with the very first few seconds, where the old black-on-red Warner Bros. logo is flashed instead of its latest, 3-dimensional iteration.
The flamboyant garb of paper-plane collars, ankle-high boots and bug-eye glasses, and flowing, un-gelled hairstyles are prevalent among the non-Iranian characters.
We notice pre-remote-controlled TVs, antiquated footage of news anchors Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw, as well as the absence of cell phones and PCs.
We hear classic-rock snippets every so often, including The Rolling Stones’ “Little T&A,” Led Zeppelin’s remake of “When the Levee Breaks” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” (Argo’s trailer features another ’70s nugget, Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” with Steven Tyler’s yelping of the titular line mirroring the desperation of Mendez’s rescue mission.)
And airplane passengers are seen as being allowed to smoke in their seats.
Yin and yang, fun and fear
Argo also has this well-executed interplay between the expected tense scenarios and the mostly unexpected funny moments.
Much of the humor stems from Hollywood’s unlikely yet crucial involvement in the rescue operation. In the process, Affleck and scriptwriter Chris Terrio (working with Mendez’s memoir The Master of Disguise and a Wired magazine article by Joshuah Bearman) poke fun at the global movie capital’s sense of narcissistic excess and artifice.
This virtual, cinematic dance is best captured by the portion showing a duet of two press conferences: one ongoing in Iran about the hostage situation featuring a table of hardened militants, the other in Los Angeles about Argo the fake movie featuring a long table of costumed actors.
The glory of the movies is best portrayed during a nerve-wracking interrogation scene, where plain yet imagination-capturing storyboards break the tension and consequently suggest how cinema, in a very real sense, can help save a life.
The acting throughout Argo is largely impeccable.
TV pro Bryan Cranston, long deserving of marquee status on Hollywood posters, leads an array of supporting stars who manage to give the younger Affleck their 101%.
Alan Arkin and John Goodman, in particular, have a ball as Mendez’s support group, with Arkin having the privilege of introducing the shirt-worthy barb about what their fake movie’s vague, 4-letter title means: “Argo f*** yourself!”
And for the ribbing he may have gotten as a thespian, an on-camera Affleck manages to pull off the quiet power in speechless gestures, such as in a grateful, wordless handshake.
(Also, the fact that Argo the fake sci-fi movie has become Argo the true-to-life period pic is pretty trippy.)
No viewer left behind
That Argo will win audiences all over the country and the world is largely due to its thriller quotient.
The consecutive sights of embattled Embassy officials shredding documents posthaste only for precocious Iranian children to piece the shreds together as engrossing jigsaw puzzles; several nail-biting moments where the main characters walk on a very strained proverbial tightrope; down to the hold-your-breath climax that recalls that of 2006’s The Last King of Scotland (and marks the latest time in a long while that I’ve heard people go, “Dali! Dali!!!” in a moviehouse) — these help keep viewers who are usually averse to “talkative” films from nodding ’til the next upbeat sequence.
On that score: Just as Mendez vows not to leave any of his rescuees behind, Affleck quietly implies throughout Argo that his flick will not leave anyone un-entertained, even the ones who may be predisposed to otherwise mindless fodder.
Argo runs for a good two hours, and hardly a second feels wasted. Affleck, who had campaigned against movie piracy, seems well aware that the best way to encourage value-for-money spendthrifts to shun movie downloads and pay for theater tickets is to produce films that are truly worth watching.
In other words, it’s as if he’s blurting: Argo watch in cinemas and enjoy yourself. - Rappler.com
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