Even though director Ben Affleck is not shy about his leftwing political leanings, this is still a tense, relatively non-political telling of the CIA’s rescue of six Americans who fled the US Embassy into Iran on Nov. 4, 1979, and were given sanctuary at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who risked his life and the life of his wife Pat (Page Leong) when all the other American allies in Iran refused to help.
The script is by Chris Terrio, and is based on a selection from the Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.
For my money, Affleck is one of the best directors in Hollywood with two outstanding films already to his credit, The Town, 2010, and Gone Baby Gone, 2007. He’s even better here than he was in those two.
Although Affleck did not write the script, this still qualifies as an auteur performance because in addition to directing, he also stars and coproduces with fellow left-winger George Clooney.
The re-creation of the takeover of the American Embassy by Islamic zealots, who took over Iran as a result of the complicity of feckless U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s withdrawal of U.S. support for our best ally in the Mideast, the Shah, is especially impressive.
In fact, the entire movie is especially impressive. While many people may know the outcome, it is still a taut tale that can keep you on the edge of your seat. Affleck gives a fine, understated performance as CIA “exfiltration” specialist, Tony Mendez.
Tony comes up with an out-of-the-box idea to rescue the six Americans. He proposes to go in as an American producer of a film and bring the six out as part of his team. Looking through lots of scripts he comes up with a sci-fi film entitled “Argo.” He goes to Hollywood and encounters John Chambers (John Goodman), an award–winning makeup pioneer, who received an honorary Oscar® for his masks for the original Planet of the Apes. He also recruits a real-life producer, Lester Siegel, played with panache by Alan Arkin, who is the best thing in this very good movie. This part of the film is loaded with stale Hollywood jokes.
The six actors who comprise the ones escaping the Embassy all give fine performances, perfectly capturing their dilemma, fear, and uncertainty, especially about Tony’s bizarre plan. They certainly didn’t embrace it with unfettered enthusiasm.
Everything about this film is high quality. I can’t imagine it not being up for multiple Oscars®. One final comment is that you should stay for the end credits to see pictures of the real-life people who lived through this ordeal alongside the actors playing them. The similarity in looks is remarkable, which is why I’m, well, remarking.
This is a trashy movie about trashy people, a movie that basically disdains its plot in order to concentrate on its characters, characters so devoid of good sense and morality that nobody sitting in a theater could possibly have any sympathy for any of them.
Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, which in turn was “inspired” by a true story, the producers have fallen into the unfortunate trap of having the scriptwriter, Lee Daniels, direct his own script. When this happens the resulting movie generally drags on far too long (Woody Allen excepted) because the director is so in love with every scene the writer writes that he can’t possibly cut anything. This film epitomizes that failing. I started looking at my watch at the 45 minute mark and may have set a record for subsequent looks because I was willing it so hard to be over.
Daniels got his A-list cast (Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Scott Glenn, and Zac Efron) to sign up for this smutty movie because it is extremely edgy, which apparently appealed to all of the actors who have heretofore mostly been in squeaky clean roles. McConaughey has apparently been trying to dump his romcom reputation by taking edgier roles. He’s coming off playing a psychotic killer/cop in Killer Joe. Here he’s another psycho, Ward Jansen, a writer who returns to the Florida town of his birth and upbringing to cover the story of a convicted killer, Hillary (Cusack, who gives a really spooky performance), Ward feels has been improperly convicted. Efron plays his younger brother, Jack, who has the hots for Hillary’s girlfriend, Charlotte (Kidman).
The problem is that the plot, trying to prove that Hillary was innocently convicted, is clearly secondary to something else. Maybe Daniels is just trying to harp on racism, because everybody in the movie (all white, except for David Oyelowo, who gives a good performance playing a journalist helping Ward) is cruel to the Jansen’s family maid, Anita (Macy Gray), who narrates the film and who is its only sympathetic character.
Making the film worse is a disgustingly graphic scene in which both Kidman and Cusack masturbate, somewhat similar to the silly oral sex scene in the aforementioned Killer Joe. It goes on and on and on with Kidman moaning and groaning reminiscent of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (although Meg was doing it for laughs), but with a graphic close-up of Kidman’s genitals and a slow pan up her body to her face to show that it is, in fact, Nicole’s body we are seeing; no body doubles here. Meg Ryan, who was her generation’s Doris Day, apparently didn’t like that image and attempted career-suicide by appearing in a near-porn film (a slimy piece of trash called In the Cut in 2003). Have you heard much of Meg Ryan since? Kidman should pray that doesn’t happen to her, although she does give a sterling performance. There’s also a repulsive graphic shot of one of the characters who has been subjected to a brutal homosexual sexual attack.
Frankly, I’ve had it with all this graphic stuff in modern movies. Sex was much sexier and violence more fearsome in the old days when everything was implied. Maybe it indicates that directors who insert this stuff in their films don’t have the talent the old guys like William Wellman and Mervyn LeRoy did.
Note to Daniels: Unless you insert a major character in your films with whom the audience can sympathize and root for, you’re going to lose much of your audience. Your characters here are so full of disagreeable personalities that in the end I didn’t care what happened to any of them.
The locations capture the atmosphere of the film, especially the scenes in which Ward and Jack are tramping through the swamp, and the cinematography (Roberto Schaefer) is outstanding.
Finally, this is advertised as a film noir. Be advised, this is not a noir. It has none of what have come to be recognized as requirements to qualify as a true film noir.