Argo - Affleck Flaunting Directorial Superpowers

Ben Affleck has returned victorious from a symbolic quest to collect his own golden fleece, definitively cementing his legitimacy in film directing. After springing a leak about a decade ago, his acting reservoir was almost completely drained of all mojo. To come back, he switched to the directors chair in "Gone Baby Gone," which grabbed everyone's attention. As he told the NYTimes, “I knew how the sausage was made. Whether I could make a good sausage, I didn’t know. But I knew how to get into the sausage factory and stuff intestines.” He followed up with "The Town," which also unclogged the congealed heart of critics. Both movies have 94% on rottentomatoes, but other than supporting actor nominations, the Academy Award was out of reach. With his new film he has probably confirmed a parking spot next to the constellation Aries in the Hollywood firmament.

"Argo" is loosely based on a nail-biting Wired article published in 2007 using recently declassified CIA docs which detail an actual screwball rescue operation that took place during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Affleck plays CIA officer Tony Mendez, known within the CIA for rigging Fidel Castro's Cohibas to blow up in his face, disguising black and asian officers as white businessmen, and outfitting cats with microphones to record conversations. Mendez, who at one point was head of the CIA's Disguise Section and later of the Authentication Division, wrote a memoir called 'The Master of Disguise' which details his adventures over a career in the clandestine service. John Goodman plays John Chambers, a real character who won an honorary Oscar for his costumes in "Planet of the Apes." Alan Arkin plays a fictional Hollywood producer who he based on Jack Warner. Bryan Cranston effectively delivers the angry lines of a CIA boss. The story can't get any crazier if it was made up: they falsely set up Studio Six Productions (named after the six Americans they would rescue) to use the cover of a fake production to get some Americans out of Iran. The film could not have been better timed, with the current state of relations with the Persians.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto used several techniques to increase the emotional tension in the film. He made experiments with every type of film he could get his hands on, and allocated different formats for the scenes according to their location. For the CIA buildings and other scenes in Washington, Prieto used anamorphic 35 mm film and got some inspiration from "All the President's Men" for the angles, camera movements, and the general layout of the office. For the sequences in Los Angeles, Prieto approximated the color and contrast of 1970's reversal film by using EFILM, and he replicated the feel of the era by studying the 1976 film "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." In the Tehran scenes, Prieto used 2-perf 35 mm, (two perforations out of the common four) which means he only uses half of every frame, and then doubles the size of the image, which adds a grainy quality which enhances the feeling of authenticity.

As a film, it will hold up as one of the best of the year; as a historical documentary, not so much. It's important to understand that Ben Affleck had to take some liberties in the narrative to make it a little bit more engaging. For example, in the prologue we get a sense of the dangers of meddling with the internal affairs of foreign countries, but one minor fabrication is when he mentions that Prime Minister Mossadegh was "overwhelmingly elected by the people," but we know that in parliamentary democracies people elect governments, not prime ministers. It is the parliament that appoints a Prime Minister, and his position has to be confirmed by the Shah. Another oversight is that in the flyover scenes of Hollywood, we can see a dilapidated and broken Hollywood sign, but in reality the sign was rebuilt in 1978, a year before the hostage crisis. Also, Mendez did not go alone to Iran, he was accompanied by some colleagues, and he obtained a visa in the Iranian consulate in Bonn, Germany, not in Istanbul. As you can see in this NYTimes video, Mendez supposedly finds the script for "Argo" in a stack of screenplays. In reality, the script was called "Lord of Light," and Mendez was the one who changed the name to "Argo." Furthermore, the portrayal of the minimal involvement of the Canadian government was criticized in the Toronto International Film Festival, but Affleck gladly added a postscript after that screening. Among other things, it mentions that "the affair has become an admirable example of international cooperation," which gives some more well-deserved credit to the Canadians.

I don't want to rain on Affleck's parade. Although I can't see it winning the Oscar for best film, it is an excellent movie, and the historical transgressions are minor. He exercised a lot of discipline to hold back from over-directing the film, letting the events speak for themselves. To finish up, take a look at an example of brass balls: the incredible 60 minutes interview Mike Wallace managed to get from the Ayatollah during the crisis.

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