Tuesday, November 27, 2012

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Argo"

1. The obvious way to make a movie based around the 1979-'81 Iran hostage crisis, which is the first big world news story that I'm old enough to remember in semi-detail, would have been to focus on the hostages. It was a risky move for Ben Affleck, directing his third feature film, to make them almost an afterthought in Argo and instead tell the story of the six U.S. Embassy in Tehran workers who got away (sort of). But it's the relative obscurity of their story -- along with Affleck's confident, straightforward direction and the creative liberties he takes with history (no way did that airport chase actually happen!) -- that give the story so much of its tension and spark. We sort of know how its going to turn out, but maybe, just maybe, we fear as the militants close in on the escape party of seven, they won't be so lucky.

2. Here's the difference between an actor like Ben Affleck and one like Brad Pitt. Although I liked Argo a lot more than I did Moneyball, Pitt's performance in the latter allowed Billy Beane to come across as a fully conceived character with a complicated inner life, while in Argo, Affleck's CIA specialist Tony Mendez (like Beane, estranged from his wife, with a child to whom he's endearingly close) is more of a heroic archetype. Thanks to Affleck's inherent likability, we care what happens to Mendez, but the portrayal doesn't really provide him with any truly distinguishing characteristics (other than that he's a pretty nice guy who smokes a lot) the way, say, Don Cheadle did with the similarly heroic Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.

3. Affleck must have a great appreciation and respect for TV actors because he populated his movie with so many of them: Emmy winners Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), along with Tate Donovan, Victor Garber and Damages season-four costars Chris Messina and John Goodman. Blink and you might miss Adrienne Barbeau, who played Bea Arthur's daughter on the '70s sitcom Maude and pops up here as an actress in fake-film-within-a-film Argo. Her participation is a neat bit of historic parallelism since circa 1980, Barbeau became a B-movie star and a B movie star after her appearance in the horror classic The Fog.

4. I wasn't surprised to find out that George Clooney was one of Affleck's Argo co-producers. While watching, I kept thinking of The Ides of March, and not just because I was waiting for Phillip Seymour Hoffman to pop up. Like last year's Clooney-directed film, Argo is a taut political thriller with a talented ensemble, a concise story, very little excess fat and a minimum of aftertaste. You'll remember it in the morning, but you probably won't still be thinking or talking about it.

5. The fake-movie-within-the-movie premise that drives the plot and Affleck's comical scenes with John Goodman and Alan Arkin as Hollywood players reminded me of Project Greenlight, Affleck and Matt Damon's this-is-how-you-make-a-movie foray into reality TV. Remember those days, around the time that Gigli and Jennifer Lopez were nearly ruining Affleck's career? I guess you could say he was just warming up for the best that was yet to come.

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