Stranger than fiction

Updated: 2012-11-17 05:52

By Elizabeth Kerr (HK Edition)

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 Stranger than fiction

Hollywood and Washington have always been close. Movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) throws his hat into the espionage ring in Argo.

 Stranger than fiction

Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) greets CIA "exfiltrator" Tony Mendez in Argo, one of 2012's best thriller.

 Stranger than fiction

A good day at the office. CIA boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston, left) celebrates a victory he and his crew will never get credit for.

 Stranger than fiction

Truth really is stranger than fiction. CIA spy Tony Mendez coaches six hostages on the fake identities that will get them out of Tehran in 1980.

Ben Affleck scores a hat trick with a preposterous thriller that could only come from Hollywood - though it didn't. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

When you think about it carefully, it feels as though there's a limit to how tense modern thrillers can truly be. In the age of cellular phones, instant messaging and video conferencing that delivers information instantly, the suspense wrung from the hero/heroine narrowly evading detection or fleeing a sealed building seems finite. When the bad guy willfully ignores a beeping cell phone and blathers on about his/her genius plan for world domination it elicits more incredulity than apprehension. "Just answer the phone and find out he's a mole," is more often the reaction. But when the story unfolds in a Cold War-era, pre-digital age, that quiet ring is like a bullhorn.

Set in the beautifully analogue late-1970s and early'80s (it's not even the Reagan era yet), Argo is a fleet, white-knuckled American companion to last year's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but with the benefit of a preposterous caper story on its side. Based on CIA spook Tony Mendez's ludicrous plan to smuggle six hostages out of Tehran during the 444-day Iran Hostage Crisis, actor Ben Affleck's third film as a director is also blessed with timeliness. With current American-Iranian diplomatic relations at a low point, Argo is oddly relevant and resonant right now, even if it's by fluke - much like the upcoming Les Misrables will be, given the economic climate and the simmering frustration of the so-called 99 percent.

However, though Affleck isn't in the business of aggravating already tetchy diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran - he's made an excellent, straight up thriller with a mind-boggling historical twist - Argo could be seen as reckless if not malevolent. At a time when Iran is cast as a nuclear weapons aspiring threat to global peace and stability in the mainstream media is a film where the villains are unsmiling, angry, robotic Iranians the best idea for mass entertainment? True, critical viewers that know the difference between news and fiction, but it still leaves an odd aftertaste. It may not be a fair assessment, but it's hard to overlook. Just saying, is all.

So with that critical eye clearly focused, Affleck begins the film with a truncated version of the events that led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, a chain that began with the UK and the US miffed about the secular, democratically elected president doing things his own way in a sovereign nation, proceeding to depose him and reinstating the West-leaning, dictatorial Shah. And sadly this history is going to be the first time too many in the audience hear about it.

The action opens up with a group of students laying siege to and then storming the American embassy, where they take 50 hostages. Little do they realize yet, six slipped out the back door to take refuge at the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian ambassador. While they hide and wait - with a diplomatic pouch seemingly stocked with an endless supply of wine and scotch - CIA "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) is called to the situation room with his jaded, agonizingly blunt boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), to lend their expertise to the plans Washington power players have to get the six out of Tehran. Eventually, Mendez's plan to go in as a filmmaker and leave on a commercial flight as a film crew is chosen, and the real caper begins.

Argo falls back on old fashioned '70s-style paranoid thriller filmmaking (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor) to tell its story, and it works almost flawlessly. The period details are never showy and overdone; the soundtrack isn't a greatest hits of the era. The film takes place in a transitional period where collars and glasses were still enormous, but not that enormous. And the almost organic production, costume and set design by Sharon Seymour, Jacqueline West and Jan Pascale is first rate work no one is going to notice (as it should be). Also key is the movie industry tone at the time. This was the period that gave us the blockbuster - Star Wars, Jaws, Superman - and the knock-offs looking to cash in on their success.

That's where producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, brilliantly cranky) and make-up guru John Chambers (John Goodman), best known for Spock's ears and Planet of the Apes, step in. Mendez goes to them and asks them to create a film and film production for his plan. The trio get the fake space epic, "Argo", noticed in trade daily Variety and set up a production office. All Mendez has to do is convince six terrified hostages that they're B-grade Canadian filmmakers and get on a plane to Zurich. Easy.

If Affleck's masterful construction of the Fenway Park heist and escape in The Town was tense, Argo will have you biting your nails to the quick. The film features one of the best escapes of the last decade at least, and once it starts it just keeps going. There's no reason to doubt there's a great deal of artistic license here - Siegel is fictional; no one has that many close calls; and it's hard to believe hostage Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) was quite so unwilling to co-operate - but it doesn't lessen the impact of the action. That's very simply due to Affleck's thorough control of his material. Yes, he indulges in some comical beltway politicking in DC (Cranston's response to a colleague asking how the CIA should find someone is hilarious), and there are plenty of jokes in his time in Hollywood (an easy target), but when Mendez becomes Kevin Harkin, his alias, Affleck kills the comic relief and gets down to business. He's gifted with strong support from a huge cast peppered with "Oh that guy!" actors able to give a few lines punch (Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, Zeljko Ivanek among others), as well as standout work from the cast of hostages, chiefly Clea DuVall. Affleck has a lot of haters out there that should start vanishing: Argo isn't a third fluke, and hopefully it will put memories of Daredevil to rest forever.

Argo opened in Hong Kong on Thursday.

 Stranger than fiction

Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) leads his film crew through the airport in the white-knuckle escape of Ben Affleck's third feature, Argo.

(HK Edition 11/17/2012 page4)