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Monday, October 29, 2012

At the movies: *Argo*

ARGO poster image, via trailer @ RottenTomatoes.com

Argo
Warner Bros. (official movie website)
Drama/Supense, 2012 (rated R)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Written by: Chris Terrio
Directed by: Ben Affleck

Synopsis, via RottenTomatoes.com:
Based on true events, Argo chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis-the truth of which was unknown by the public for decades. On November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution reaches its boiling point, militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. But in the midst of the chaos, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are found out and likely killed, a CIA "exfiltration" specialist named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a risky plan to get them safely out of the country. A plan so incredible, it could only happen in the movies. -- (C) Warner Bros.

When the folks at one of my very favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, were discussing the new movie Argo a couple of weeks ago, it was part of a conversation about the nature of “suspense” in storytelling--specifically, the particulars of building suspense when the audience already knows how the story ends. As someone who’s not terribly spoiler-phobic and whose main interest is usually in seeing how a story gets to where it’s going, even if I already know where that is, I think that’s always a conversation worth having.

I think it comes down to fundamentals: having a good story to tell. And the story in Argo is a damn good one--one of those crazy tales that would sound completely implausible if it hadn’t actually happened. And because it actually happened, we already know going in that this very risky scheme was successfully accomplished. Even with that knowledge, I was on the edge of my seat with a knot in my stomach for most of the time I was watching Argo  The stakes in this movie are the highest--real people’s lives are in the balance.

I was in high school during the 444 days of the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Iran--old enough to be aware of it, young enough to tune out much of the news about it. I don’t remember ever hearing that on Day 87, six Americans made it out of the country--thanks to the Canadians. The fact that it wasn’t solely thanks to the Canadians wasn’t made known until the documents about the CIA’s planning and execution of the mission were declassified in the late 1990s. Given that the cover story to get those “houseguests” out of Iran involved the making of a Hollywood movie, it was probably only a matter of time before Hollywood made a movie about the mission.

This particular Hollywood movie could be a textbook example of what can result when Hollywood does its best at what it does. Argo is not particularly innovative, but it’s genuinely well-made--good writing, straightforward direction, an excellent cast, and an involving story that depends on serious human drama. That said, there are parts of the movie that are seriously funny. I think those of us who live in the entertainment “company town” of Los Angeles, even if we’re not directly involved in that company, particularly appreciate when the industry is honest about its own inherent BS. Given that its central plot device is a fake movie, there are plenty of opportunities for Argo to do that, and they really help balance the mood of the film.

Considering the Hollywood fakery set against the life-and-death conditions in Iran, Argo has some potential for jarring shifts in tone--and fortunately, it succeeds at avoiding them. I think it succeeds pretty much across the board, actually--it’s entertaining, emotionally engaging, suspenseful, inspiring, and very well-crafted. It may not end up being my favorite movie of 2012, but it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year.