Argo: Science fiction saves the day
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2012 - 12:00am

Frankly I thought Ben Affleck was a goner. When you go from struggling actor to Academy Award-winning star, and then headline turkeys like Gigli as the consort of Jenny from the Block, the same people who cheered you on during your early triumphs will be rooting for your downfall. In truth, I didn’t think Good Will Hunting, his breakthrough movie with Matt Damon, was that great. I liked it well enough, but what really appealed to me was the backstory: best friends who couldn’t pay the rent suddenly make it very big. Damon made the wise career choices; Affleck picked Pearl Harbor and Daredevil. He turned himself into a punchline.

 Then he revealed his real strength. It wasn’t acting — of the two, Damon is the gifted actor, able to convey shifts of emotion while doing apparently nothing. Affleck wasn’t even onscreen for his directorial debut, the crime drama Gone Baby Gone. Tough, gut-wrenching, featuring an amazing performance by Amy Ryan as the world’s worst mother, Gone Baby Gone announced the arrival of a fine director. He followed this with The Town, another tough, gut-wrenching crime drama, featuring an excellent performance by Jeremy Renner as the loose cannon. We stopped calling him Ben Assfleck and started looking forward to his next movie.

 That movie is Argo, based on an actual American intelligence operation. In 1979 Iranian revolutionaries attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans prisoner in what is now referred to as the Iran Hostage Crisis. Unbeknownst to the Iranians, six American embassy staff managed to escape from the building and hide inside the residence of the Canadian ambassador. If they are found, they will certainly be captured and executed. The Canadians are leaving Iran, and the revolutionaries are this close to discovering the six. The Americans have to be spirited out of Iran as soon as possible.

 Ben Affleck stars as the Central Intelligence Agency’s exfiltration expert Antonio Mendez, the man tasked with rescuing the six. Seventeen years after it happened, the operation was declassified and Mendez wrote it up in his memoir, The Master of Disguise. (By the way, Mendez’s wife was also a CIA operative, a fact that is left out of the movie because then it would turn into Mr. and Mrs. Smith.) Mendez’s plan is right out of the annals of “That’s so crazy, it just might work.” He sneaks into Tehran pretending to be a movie producer scouting locations with his crew. In Iran? In the middle of a revolution? But movies routinely make us believe in the improbable — that’s what it has in common with intelligence work.

 So Argo unfolds like a heist thriller in which the goods being stolen are humans. It’s 1980, Star Wars has changed the face of the movies, and everyone’s making science-fiction space opera ripoffs. One such project is Argo, which is set in a distant planet that for some reason looks like an exotic Middle Eastern city. As always, Affleck gets wonderful performances out of his actors. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are both brilliant as the Hollywood veterans who help Mendez make the fantasy of a movie production seem real. This is escapist fare, literally.

 Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Philip Baker Hall are among the CIA and White House officials involved in the plan; Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé and Clea DuVall are the Americans in hiding. Victor Garber is the quietly valiant Canadian ambassador. All the actors must be mentioned by name because this is probably the best ensemble of the year.

Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Philip Baker Hall are among the CIA and White House officials involved in the plan.

 In fact the only character we have a beef with is Ben Affleck’s Mendez. He’s so stoic he’s positively lugubrious. Okay, he’s worried about the mission, and his personal life is problematic, but someone who comes up with a wacky plan like that cannot be that bland. I don’t care if he’s the CIA’s master of disguise: he’s a geek, and we are geeks. Geeks can’t help but proclaim their eccentric obsessions, and the only eccentric thing about Affleck’s character is his hair. He could be Chewbacca, without the personality.

 His acting aside, Affleck does solid work. He’s especially good at staging sudden bursts of violence — the storming of the embassy has the vividness of news footage, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto recreates archival photos to heighten the effect. As in any heist movie, many things go wrong in the execution; Argo manages to keep us in suspense even if we know how it turns out.

 For viewers who regard Iran 1980 as a kingdom far, far away, Affleck opens his film with a respectful Persepolis-style animated history of Persia and Iran. We do live in turbulent times (but when are times ever not turbulent?) and a glance at the international headlines may give you a powerful sense of déjà vu. Attacks on US embassies in the Middle East, threats from the Iranian government — it’s as if nothing has changed. Argo’s timing is uncanny: it doesn’t just mirror these times, it seems to predict them. Well played, Affleck.

Argo opens in theaters on Oct. 17.

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