Movie Review: Argo (2012)

October 23, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, proves two things. One, he is still a mediocre actor. And two, he is developing into one heck of a director.

Following on from one of my favourite films from 2010, The Town, Affleck returns to the director’s chair for Argo, a film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis where 52 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage by Islamist students and militants.

The movie itself centers on a fascinating but lesser-known aspect of a side story to the crisis in which US involvement was not declassified until 1997. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with finding a way to bring back six Americans who escaped the embassy at the start of the crisis and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). At a time where the six Americans would likely be tortured and killed if discovered, Mendez concocted a plan that would have been unbelievable had it not been true: producing a fake sci-fi movie.

The timing was perfect, given Star Wars had taken off and Hollywood producers were scrambling to make rip-offs. But of course, if it were so easy to get them out the film would not be two hours long.

Argo doesn’t have much of that stuff you see in action films these days, but it’s still incredibly tense and exciting all the way through. The background and context to the crisis is swiftly and effectively dealt with at the beginning, and the initial scenes of the civil unrest expertly generate a genuine sense of terror and panic that lingers on for the rest of the film.

It could have been very easy for this film to become dull and stagnant, but Affleck sustains the tension through a series of well-crafted incidents and conversations, ensuring viewers never lost track of what was at stake and the imminent danger the Americans were in at all times. Needless to say, things were probably never that tense in real life, but that’s why this is a movie.

Credit has to go to Affleck for his brilliantly authentic recreation of 1979 Tehran, which as the end credits showed paid painstaking attention to detail. Everything from the architecture, the clothing and the hairstyles brought me back to those times, and I wasn’t even born then!

The performances from the all-star cast were solid. The ever-present Bryan Cranston (sorry, Heisenberg) was subtle as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s supervisor, and yet electrifying when he needed to be. Breaking Bad has already proven Cranston to be one of the greatest TV actors of all-time, and I hear maybe Argo has given him some Oscar buzz. John Goodman, who plays Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays  director Lester Siegel, provide some of the more lighthearted moments and are both excellent.

As for the six US diplomats, the only actors I recognised were Tate Donovan (best known for being engaged to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock) and Clea DuVall (whom I will always associate with The Faculty), but all of them were very good.

As it turned out, the weakest link was probably Affleck himself as Mendez. Apart from the lack of a physical resemblance (everyone else was pretty spot on), Affleck played Mendez with his usual “blank” face and unlayered line delivery. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and perhaps the muted performance was intentional, but to be honest I never really felt as much for his character as I probably should have.

Overall, Argo is unquestionably compelling cinema and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as a director who knows how to craft impeccable dramas filled with thrills and style. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fair Game (2010)

October 27, 2010 in Movie Reviews


Fair Game commences across Australia on 25 November 2010

I’m just going to come out and say it.  Fair Game is one of the best political drama-thriller I’ve seen in a long time.  And no, I’m not talking about the Cindy Crawford, Billy Baldwin classic of 1995.  This Fair Game stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and tells the amazing true story of Valerie Plame, a former CIA operative, and her husband, former US ambassador Joe Wilson.

Admittedly, as a non-American, I knew very little about Plame’s story when I went to the screening, and I made a conscious effort to steer clear of any spoilers.  So I’m going to try and not give anything away here, except to say that Plame worked as a CIA operative and the story is set around the time the US made the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty WMD intelligence. Both Plame and Wilson played roles in that intelligence gathering process.

Directed by Doug Liman (best known for The Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs Smith), Fair Game is carried by its riveting plot and dynamite performances from Watts and Penn, who should both be in the running for Oscar nominations.  It provides a fascinating insight into how the US manipulated the intelligence to skew their decision towards war, and the devastating impact on the lives of those who tried to unveil the truth.

At its heart, Fair Game is about the relationship between husband and wife, and the strain their jobs and beliefs puts on it.  Watts and Penn’s performances more than make up for any deficiencies in the script, bringing Plame and Wilson to life.  This was so important because the film would fall apart if the audience doesn’t care about the characters and what happens to them.

On the other hand, Fair Game is far more than a domestic drama.  There is tension all throughout the 106-minute running time (very suitable length for a movie of this kind) — from Plame’s dangerous operations in the field to even just a seemingly friendly dinner party.  There are no slow bits.

Of course, there are people out there who will already know a great deal about “The Plame Affair”, and have their opinions of the couple.  And if that opinion is negative, then they will probably hate this film, because it does come across as a little self-righteous.  It is, after all, based on books written by Plame and Wilson, so we effectively only get their side of the story.  I also read in the press materials that because of “national security” reasons, the filmmakers had to sidestep certain things and fictionalise certain aspects of the film, such as particular situations or characters by depicting something or someone “similar” as opposed to the real thing.  So yes, the “true story” part needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

But to me, Fair Game is just a great story, fabulously told and wonderfully acted.

4.5 stars out of 5!

 
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