Thursday, October 25, 2012

Perilous Threads

In Argo, the latest film from director Ben Affleck, the lives of six people are literally defined by pieces of paper. These include fake passports, disembarcation cards, phony resum├ęs and most hauntingly, scraps of shredded paper. It is this fragile balance that gives this true story its power and immediacy, as we watch this knowing that any of these six people could be our co-workers, friends or even ourselves. More than a recreation of an historical event, Argo asks the viewer to understand how so many things had to go right for these people to survive; government agencies may have power to take action, but in the final analysis, those logistics depend on brave people carrying them out.

Argo is based upon the famous incident in November, 1979 when more than fifty employees of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran were captured and taken as hostage. The people responsible for this act did so as a form of protest regarding the United States offering asylum to the Shah of Iran, who had been recently overthrown. President Jimmy Carter, seeing that the Shah was in poor health, allowed him to come to American to spend his final days.

Affleck begins the film with a brief history of Iran - shown as comic book frames - starting from centuries prior all the way up to the point in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge of his country. The film immediately puts us in harm's way, as we are there at the embassy grounds seeing how the everyday business of granting visas is juxtaposed with the angry mob storming the gates, desperate to get in and create a scene. They succeed in breaking down the barriers and entering the building at various positions and while the embassy troops do what they can to fight off the mob with tear gas, they are hopelessly outnumbered; the employees are taken as hostage.

Amidst this chaos, six employees escape via a side entrance and hurry along local streets, fearing for their safety. They quickly come upon the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who lets them into his home. As long as they stay in his house, they are safe - or at least until the Iranian police squads can find them.

The Central Intelligence Agency immediately learns of these six and realizes they must be rescued before they are discovered, but how? One of the most powerful agents at the Virginia headquarters calls in Tony Mendez (Affleck in full beard), an "exfiltration" agent who had successfully led previous rescue missions overseas. Mendez explains the risks involved to the agency heads, but can't come up with a plan until he is inspired by a science fiction movie he watches on tv. His solution? He will create new identities for these six, who will now become employees of a film production company from Canada who are in Iran to shoot a futuristic epic.

While the agency bosses are initially leery of such a plan ("Don't you have a better bad idea?," asks one of the agents), Mendez eventually convinces them that this is their only alternative. Of course, to convince anyone that the six "Canadians" are truly there to make a movie, he has to create one. He meets with John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist as well as a former CIA agent and down and out producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who is hilarious) to come up with the film, screenplay and production company. Their choice is a ridiculous Star Wars-inspired adventure entitled Argo, which everyone admits will be a pretty cheesy film.

The three of them do their job brilliantly, even convincing Variety, the Hollywood show-biz Bible, to run a story about the film's upcoming production. One of the best sequences in the movie is a read through of the script at a lavish party, as the film's performers, garbed in ridiculously absurd costumes, act out their parts. Just to remind us how phony this world is, Affleck then intercuts to a scene of the captured hostages being hooded and led to the embassy basement where they face Iranian soldiers who fire their empty weapons at them - just to see the fear in the Americans. It's a brief, but chilling moment that displays the insanity - or absurdity, if you will - of this entire situation.

Affleck does an excellent job presenting this various layers of this story; things start to get quite tense once his character arrives in Iran and meets with the six in their hideout. A few are reluctant to go along with this plan, fearing it will be instant suicide, but eventually they realize they must act as a team. The scene where Mendez takes them through the streets of Tehran, as they are supposedly scouting possible locations for their film, is beautifully directed by Affleck, as we see the anxiety on the faces and in the body language of these six; there's a nice piece of business when Mendez has to tell one of them that he's looking through the wrong end of a viewfinder. As they walk along a busy avenue amidst a huge throng of locals carrying on their everyday business, they cannot help but feel they are being watched; this sequence is nicely staged and directed with just the right feel.

In his two previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), Affleck displayed impressive talent, especially in terms of atmosphere as well as timing; he presented the action in these films in a manner that was not rushed, letting his actors have their moments. His cutting was quite notable on the latter film, especially in the opening and closing robbery scenes. Now with Argo, Affleck does an even better job with cross cutting, especially toward the end of the film where we go back and forth between the plight of the six at the airport as they wait upon customs and security to let them board their flight and C.I.A. headquarters where split second decisions must be made by a few agents if this mission is to succeed. This is a classically structured sequence, as we're on the edge of our seat waiting to learn the protagonists's plight. One can finally take a deep breath once this action is played out.

With Argo, Affleck has taken his next step as a director, capturing the power of images. I wrote at the start of this post about pieces of paper being a literal factor in the lives of the six. The most unforgettable image in this film is that of Iranian children huddled in a room assembling shredded documents that when assembled properly will identify these escapees; the fact that the Iranians could go to such lengths is a sign of the ruthlessness in which they went about their deeds. These long, thin pieces of paper are flimsy, yet also very powerful when fit together. Contrast that with the story boards of the phony film that Affleck carries with him to convince the Iranians that his production company will make their fantasy/adventure film and you realize how people's lives can be saved or destroyed by a mere document. It's a chilling message.