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Copernicus is so in love with ARGO that he almost forgives Ben Affleck for ARMAGEDDON!

I think I may have finally forgiven Ben Affleck for ARMAGEDDON. I'm not a huge fan of his as an actor, but he's shown himself to be quite an interesting director. ARGO is another step for him in both roles --- he turns in a subtle, nuanced performance as an actor, and his delivered an expertly crafted, tension-filled, and surprisingly funny drama based on a true story set during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1980. I had a chance to catch it on at one of the earliest screenings of it at the Toronto Film Festival.

I won't get into spoilers about the ending, but if you are interested, you can read about the true story the film is based on here. Instead, I'll will set up events that take place during the first act of the film. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the American embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage. Most Americans are familiar with this ordeal, where the Americans were held in captivity for more than a year. But many aren't as familiar with another drama that played out largely in the shadows, and whose details were classified until the late 90s. A half-dozen Americans escaped as the embassy was being stormed, and wandered the hostile streets of Tehran, until they ended up at the Canadian Ambassador's house. He took them in, at great risk to him and his household, where they lived for weeks. If they were found out, everyone would surely have been executed. The CIA came up with a plan to extract the Americans by flying in spy and exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, and smuggling them out under the guise that they were a Canadian film crew making a science fiction film named ARGO. John Chambers, Oscar-winning makeup artist of STAR TREK and PLANET OF THE APES, here played by John Goodman, helped in the planning and logistics of the mission.

The film starts with a brief history lesson, explaining why the Iranians are so mad at the Americans -- we ousted their Shah in favor of one backed by America and Great Britain. It pulls no punches, and keeps the film from becoming a little too jingoistic. From there we go right into the simmering students outside the American embassy. The film seems to cut between a recreation done for the film, and actual archival footage, but that might just be the result of switching to 16mm to mimic the effect. In any case, the scenes filmed in the midst of the crowd, intercut with scenes from inside the embassy under siege, are effective in creating a sense of tension, chaos, and imminent doom.

After that, the film cuts between four basic groups: the Iranian antagonists and their efforts to uncover the identities of the Americans who escaped, the CIA as they hatch plans to try to free the hostages, Hollywood in all its eccentricity, mostly oblivious to the goings-on, and the escaped Americans themselves, trapped in the Canadian Ambassador's house.

On the CIA side we have Affleck playing Mendez and Bryan Cranston playing CIA boss Jack O'Donnell. Cranston brings a gravitas and authority necessary to the film, and Affleck gives a surprisingly restrained, but effective, performance in full-on 70s beard. The behind-the-scenes look at the deliberations in the CIA and State Department are fascinating, even if they have been punched up for dramatic and comedic effect.

Goodman's John Chambers and Alan Arkin in a fictional role as a producer, provide comic relief as Hollywood veterans who love their jobs but have a healthy cynicism about some of the rather idiotic inner workings of Hollywood. Their one-liners about the industry are spot-on and got huge laughs in the press screening I attended. This keeps the film from slipping into an inappropriate self-contradulatory tone, where Hollywood gets overly excited in its minor role in a spy caper. Arkin in particular is a real scene-stealer. And this being 1979, it turns out ARGO is a STAR WARS ripoff, complete with a blue Chewbacca!

Meanwhile, the Americans in peril are played by lesser-known actors. This is a great decision, since right from the beginning you never know who's going to get away, get shot, or become a hostage. Having the Americans be unknowns also helps ground the film, and make the proceedings more believable. All do a great job of acting both scared in their plight, and then acting like they are acting poorly in their first attempt to assume their Canadian identities.

Though the film is based on true events, screenwriter Chris Terrio has changed many of the details to make it more movie-friendly. In general, I prefer that my historical dramas stick closer to the truth, but here the filmmakers here have preserved the essence of the truth, while compacting the events in time, changing some of the details, and substituting external tensions for some of the internal drama. There is no denying that it is effective -- throughout the film, the life-and-death stakes tension continues to ratchet up, reaching almost unbearable heights. In fact, they border on taking it too far. Certain things happen that you absolutely know can't be true because it just seems straight our of a Hollywood film. But all in all, it is a forgivable offense. By the time things start to go overboard, you are fully invested. And if they hadn't punched up some of the details, the film might not have been as compelling. If you want the exact truth, you can read about it later.

Stay for the credits -- they show side-by-side comparisons stills from the film and from the actual events that took place. Often it is hard to tell which is which.

The script is great, and at the press conference, Affleck gave most of the credit to his screenwriter Chris Terrio. And of course he gave a ton of credit to Tony Mendez, a real hero who risked his life for a handful of total strangers. Still, Affleck deserves a lot of praise for turning ARGO into an effective film. Creating believable circumstances, establishing real drama, pathos, and comedy, doesn't just happen by itself. And he also successfully balances tension and levity, antagonists and protagonists, and building great characters that can carry the plot forward.

We are reaching the festival midpoint, and so far ARGO is one of my top picks of TIFF 2012. And Ben Affleck has now become a director whose films I seek out every festival. That's a long way from a cringe-worthy star of a Michael Bay film.


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