The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



I was pretty young when the Iran hostage crisis was taking place, but I was very aware of it nonetheless. Even if I didn't understand all the whys of it, I certainly understood that Americans were being held captive and it was a very scary thing. In the '90s, President Clinton declassified some information about the crisis, and one particularly interesting story serves as the basis for Argo, the newest film directed by Ben Affleck. You needn't have lived through that time to appreciate the movie, although my own vivid memories of it made an already compelling experience even greater.

The film begins with a harrowing recreation of the storming of the American embassy in Iran. Six of the embassy's employees are able to escape and are soon offered sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Once the Iranians realize that six individuals are missing from the embassy, they begin a frantic search for them. Affleck portrays Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist who knows how to get people out of troublesome areas. When it becomes clear that traditional methods of getting the Americans out of Iran will be easily seen through, Mendez concocts a creative plan: he suggests they pose as a film crew scouting locations in the country. To sell the ruse, he enlists the help of a Hollywood make-up artist (John Goodman) and a has-been producer (Alan Arkin). They mount a fake production – making it seem as real as possible – while Mendez goes to Iran to help the Americans pull it off. His hope is that, by having them “sell” their new identities, he can put them on a plane and bring them home before anyone catches on. The plan does not go off without a hitch, though. Actually, there are multiple hitches.

Argo is a terrific film in part because it works on two levels. The story of how Mendez helped these people to escape is both dramatic and intense. We see the preparation that goes into the plan, as well as the way he has to think on his feet every time something threatens to expose it. There are one or two scenes that made me hold my breath, the most harrowing of which involves the Americans having to venture out of the ambassador's home for a fake location visit, only to find their van surrounded by the very people who would like to capture and/or kill them. At the same time, Argo also works as a Hollywood tale. Because the ruse needs to be convincing, Mendez has to rely on his show-biz pals to create a sense of authenticity. They get the rights to a cheesy sci-fi script titled “Argo,” develop storyboards, and dupe the press into reporting details of the production – all so that everything looks above-board when Mendez gets to Iran. The movie is funnier than you might expect, as this CIA guy finds himself dealing with the machinations of the motion picture business.

As director, Affleck deftly juggles these two sides of his film. He also shows once again that he has a knack for casting actors who bring even the smallest of parts to life. Mendez is obviously the central character, with the make-up artist and the producer primary supporting characters, and Affleck, Goodman, and Arkin are all fantastic playing them. But while they have a little less screen time, the actors who play the Americans (including Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, and Kerry Bishe) all manage to make a strong impression. These characters are not anonymous at all; we get a sense of their individual personalities. The same is true of the guys who work at the CIA (Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina among them). Each actor brings something valuable to the feel of Argo, making the stakes seem very real.

With Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and now this, Affleck confirms his status as a top filmmaker. He's three-for-three when it comes to making intelligent, well-crafted, highly entertaining movies. Argo isn't just fascinating because it's a true story, it's fascinating because Affleck tells the story well, building tension while always maintaining a very human-centered approach. The fictional “Argo” was never actually made. This Argo is a movie that sinks its claws into you and doesn't let go, not that you'd want it to.

( out of four)

Argo is rated R for language and some violent images. The running time is 2 hours.

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