Sunday, 24 February 2013

"This is the best bad plan we have, sir!"

Tonight sees the movie world's biggest night of the year with the 85th Academy Awards taking place at the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak Theatre) in Los Angeles. As the red carpet is rolled out and the Oscars are polished, one film hoping to take away a well deserved gong is Ben Afflecks brilliant espionage thriller Argo.

Affleck's impressive directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), had already earned approving nods across press-screening rooms and multiplexes. But neither that nor his follow-up, The Town (2010) necessarily proved an aptitude for nailing international period dramas. Yet here we are. You can imagine a crooked smile springing on that square jaw of his as he pored over newcomer Chris Terrio's snappy script and clocked the zinger, "You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

Hollywood has always been partial to a good old spy yarn, especially since the post-Watergate 1970s heyday. It also enjoys taking sideways glances at its own lurid reflection. Robert Altman's The Player (1992), the Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro starrer Wag The Dog (1997) and satirical comedy State And Main (2000) are all prime examples. So, when the CIA declassified the relevant documents to this stranger then fiction case in 1997, revealing the real reason why a certain Star Wars rip-off never got the green light, a cinematic retelling was surely inevitable.

On November 4 1979, a mob of Ayatollah-supporting militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in retaliation for sheltering the recently deposed Shah. More than 50 of the embassy staff were taken hostage, but six managed to escape and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). With the escapees' situation being kept secret, the US State Department begins to explore options for their exfiltration from Iran. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist brought in as consultant, criticises their proposals. At a loss for an alternative, he finds inspiration whilst watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes with his son, he plans to create a cover story where the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting 'exotic' locations in Iran for a fictional science fiction movie.

Affleck's Mendez and his supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) contact John Chambers (John Goodman), the make-up artist who won an Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes and who had previously crafted disguises for the CIA. Chambers in turn puts them in touch with the fictional film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together they set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretence of developing Argo, a science fiction space opera in the style of Star Wars, providing credibility to their incredible cover story.

This Hollywood segment must have appealed to Affleck and George Clooney (Clooney had been attached as director before taking a back seat as Executive Producer), as much for its outcome as for its breezy, self-deprecatory tone. This was a rare occasion where a movie helped save the day for real, and where its success went entirely unnoticed.

Should Affleck have given himself the 'hero' role of Company man Tony Mendez? Arguably yes. Despite ethnic authenticity (the real Mendez is of Mexican ancestry) it's hard to begrudge him a roll that is mostly a thankless one. Hunched, unshaven and bleary-eyed, here is a man who wakes up in the morning fully clothed and surrounded by empty Chinese food cartons. He has no big bombastic speech moment, despite his earnest conviction that the 'Hollywood option' is the best he has on offer. He simply moves quietly around the story’s dramedic triangle.

At one corner are the Tinseltown antics of Arkin and Goodman. At the other, the CIA offices headed up by Bryan Cranston (Little Miss Sunshine, Malcolm in the Middle, Drive) as Mendez' boss, who gets all the best lines not spoken by Arkin. "This is the best bad plan we have, sir!" is one of the films finest. And then there is the sharpest vertex, involving the six American officials holed up at the Canadian diplomat's residence. Their journey takes them from narrowly escaping their embassy’s fall to having to swallow Mendez' outlandish plan. A plan which involves each of them pretending to be a the department head of a non-existent B movie, simply visiting Iran for a location recce.

It's here where we find possibly the film's strongest performance, delivered by Scoot McNairy (Monsters, Killing Them Softly), half-buried beneath bottle-glass specs and thick Ned Flanders moustache. The CIA had predicted that his older colleague Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) would assume leadership of the group, but in fact it's McNairy's previously unassuming Joe Stafford who exhibits the most mettle under these nerve-shredding circumstances. When Mendez lays out his crazy scheme, it is Stafford who balks at the idea. In any other hands this might have come off like the twitchy doubter of an Irwin Allen disaster movie. But McNairy and Affleck ensure that during their confrontations, it is with Stafford where the sympathies lie. After all, he's not wrong. The plan was nuts. He is certainly the clearest thinking and most emotionally honest character here.

Argo is really a deft series of balancing acts. One sequence begins with a ludicrous public casting call, attended by various Hollywood wannabes in an assortment of outrageous sparkly space wear. These low-budget Threepios and Barbarellas launch into a script reading while champagne flutes clink and cameras flash. Affleck intercuts this with a chilling scene of tied up American hostages being hustled into a dank basement with sacks over their heads, only to be treated to a mock execution by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Their knees buckling as the rifle hammers dully snap down. In essence, everyone is putting on a show. The CIA, in creating a fake movie junket. Hollywood, because ultimately that is its very business. And the Khomeini-supporting Iranians, proving to a decadent world that they are not to be taken lightly.

It's this theme that pulls the film neatly together and gives it thrilling impetus when it could so easily have stalled. The truth is, there wasn't a particularly dramatic conclusion to the real events, but writer Terrio and Affleck embellish the facts sensitively and effectively. Amongst these was giving McNairy his glory moment as he hastily tries to pitch Argo, complete with storyboards (in reality produced by comic book legend Jack Kirby), to a gun-toting Iranian guard. Elsewhere, the usual tension-ramping techniques are applied judiciously. For example, when the terrified six suffer a tour of Tehran's bazaar in their flimsy filmmaker guises (Rory Cochrane's faux-cinematographer looking through a viewfinder the wrong way) amid an increasingly volatile crowd. Or when the irritating stop-start of film production has potentially fatal consequences.

As Cranston's character notes, there will be no applause for Mendez if his Escape From Tehran is a success. But there will be for Affleck whose ovations will be thoroughly deserved. A man now shaping up to be one of America’s smartest mainstream dramatic directors.

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