Sunday, October 14, 2012

Visiting the Past

Truth, we are often reminded, is stranger than fiction.  Well, that's only true sometimes, but boy howdy! - when it's true, it's really true.  There are some things that most of us just couldn't make up if we tried for days, even if we were fueled by an unending supply of caffeine, sugar, and less reputable substances.

So what about this?  Here's the pitch - in 1979, six political hostages escape and find temporary refuge in the private residence of an American ally.  The only way to get them out is to have a CIA spook go in with the cover story that everyone is (ready?) part of a film crew who's in this catastrophically-screwy country to scout locations for a low-budget science fiction adventure movie designed to cash in on the global success of Star Wars.

Truth really is stranger than fiction, because it happened.  Details were declassified in 1997 by President Clinton and the resulting movie, Argo, tells a tale that is hard to believe, yet mostly true.  (Not entirely.  A few things aren't historically accurate, such as the run-down Hollywood sign, which was actually cleaned up in 1978.  Also, the Canadian government was more deeply involved than Argo lets on, but it's a feature film, not a documentary, so let's not nitpick overmuch.)

One aspect of Argo that I quite liked is that it doesn't take the jingoistic route.  While no sane person would approve of the actions of the hostage-takers, it has to be admitted that some of this situation was chickens coming home to roost.  Consider the hard facts leading up to the American embassy being overrun by armed and angry dissident students, screaming for USA blood.  First, the USA financed a coup to overthrow the freely-elected leader of the country and place "our guy" on the Peacock Throne as the head of the puppet government. (How appropriate that it wasn't really the real Peacock Throne.  The whole thing was a sham.)  Oil, don't you know.  Then we ignored decades of human rights abuses as "our guy" treats the country like his personal piggy bank.  Oh, and he's quite willing to turn a blind eye to widespread corruption and torture of political opponents, by the way.  Lastly, when the citizens of the country overthrow "our guy" after decades of this mistreatment, we offer him asylum.

If your brother had been hung upside down to be beaten and shocked with cattle prods, I bet you'd be a bit miffed as well.

Ben Affleck directs Argo with a deft hand and a slyly comic touch (John Goodman and Alan Arkin are absolute gold during their time on screen as the Hollywood contacts in the underlying scheme) that never loses sight of the fact that this was a dangerous, desperate plan that had absolutely no guarantee of working. You also have several instances where you realize that a single frustrated, "This isn't going to work!" from one of the tightly-wound not-quite-hostages could have spelled death by firing squad for the whole bunch.  Also, Bryan Cranston (playing the CIA boss back home) shows again what amazing range he has an an actor - the casting of this picture is just aces.  Be sure to stay through the credits - President Carter wants to talk with you!

In short, Argo is a thriller for the sort of movie viewer who's willing to wait for the payoff, rather than demanding 3.2 car chases per hour.  For this, Affleck can finally put Gigli behind him.  (Come on, like you don't have a few snapshots you hope never see the light of day.)  Argo is Oscar-worthy - see it now rather than waiting for the nominations to come out.

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