“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and became a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. The movie also won several awards, including the top prize – the Academy Awards Best Picture of 2012.  And Affleck never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a“science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic.“ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

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“THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”, a new comedy-drama directed by Grant Heslov that stars George Clooney and Ewan McGregor:

”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Grant Heslov directed this comedic adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The movie starred George Clooney as one of the participants in this program and Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a journalist who stumbles across the story, while reporting on businesses with military contracts in Iraq. One of the surprising aspects of this movie is that its story is based upon fact. According to author Jon Ronson, there was actually a similar unit actually existed within the U.S. Army. The names were changed . . . and probably some of the facts, but the Army did explore New Age concepts and military applications of the paranormal.

The movie followed McGregor’s character, a journalist with the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram named Bob Wilton who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) after flying to Kuwait out of anger, due to a recent divorce with his wife. During a trip across the Iraqi countryside, Cassady revealed his participation in an Army unit that trained to develop a range of par psychological skills by using New Age concepts. The unit ended up being named the New Earth Army. While the pair endured a journey that included encounters with a gang of Iraqi criminals, their fellow kidnap victim (Waleed Zuaiter), the head of a private security firm named Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick) and two rival groups of American contractors who engage in a gunfight against each other in Ramadi.

During Wilton and Cassady’s journey, the latter revealed the story behind the creation of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam War veteran named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who travelled across America in the 1970s for six years to explore a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement) after getting shot during the Vietnam War. Django used these experiences to create the New Earth Army. Django’s recruits ended up being nicknamed ”Jedi Warriors”. By the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who developed a lifelong rivalry because of their opposing views of how to implement the First Earth philosophy. Lyn wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Larry was more interested in the dark side of the philosophy. Wilton and Cassady’s journey ended when they located a military base in the middle of the desert. They discovered that Larry Hooper has become the founder and head of PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. A dismayed Cassady also learned that a now decrepit Django has become an employee of PSIC.

I must admit that I was not in a big hurry to see ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”. In fact, I never had any intention of seeing it in the first place. The only reason I went to see the movie in the first place was that I was desperate for something to watch. The movie season for the past two months has seemed pretty deplorable to me. Aside from ”THE INFORMANT’, I have not been able to stumble across a movie that I would find appealing. And what about ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”? Did I find it appealing? Honestly? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I must admit that thanks to Grant Heslov’s direction and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, I found the movie rather humorous in an off-kilter manner. Some of the most humorous scenes featured:

*Wilton and Cassady’s flight from a group of Iraqi criminals

*The ”Battle of Ramadi” between two American private security armies

*Bill Django’s six year exploration of New Age movements

*The results of Wilton and Django’s spiking of the Army base food with LSD.

At first, the movie’s approach to New Age religion and movements seemed inconsistent. The first half of the film did not seem to treat it as a joke. However, once Wilton and Cassady reached the base housing the PSIC, Straughan’s script treated the subject with a lot more respect. It took me a while to realize that the story was told from Bob Wilton’s point-of-view. It only seemed natural that he would first view the New Earth Army and New Age beliefs as a joke. But after time spent with Cassady and later Django at the PSIC base, Wilton naturally developed a newfound respect for both topics. The movie also provided a slightly pointed attack upon the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Normally, I would have cringed at such protesting in a comedy. Fortunately, Heslov used humor – and very sharp humor at that – to mock American presence in the Middle Eastern country.

I think that Lyn Cassady might turn out to be one of my favorite roles portrayed by George Clooney. One, he gave a hilarious performance. And two, he also did a marvelous job in infusing Cassady’s role with a mixture of super-military machismo and wide-eyed innocence. And despite his questionable American accent, I was very impressed by Ewan McGregor’s poignant performance as the lovelorn Michigan journalist (his wife left him for his editor), who travels to Iraq to prove his bravery to his former wife . . . only to discover something more unique. Another joyous addition to the cast turned out to be Jeff Bridges, who gave a wonderfully off-kilter performance as Cassady’s mentor and founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django. And Larry Hooper, the one man allegedly responsible for bringing down Django’s New Earth Army, turned out to be another one of Kevin Spacey’s delicious villainous roles.

If ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” ever turn out to be a hit film, I would be very surprise. There is a good chance that many moviegoers might find the film’s use of topics such as the Army’s exploration of New Age movements and the paranormal to mock American military presence in Iraq a bit hard to take. And there is the possibility that filmgoers might find Straughan’s script used constant flashbacks to tell the story of the New Earth Army during Cassady and Wilton’s journey throughout Iraq rather confusing. Personally, I rather liked the movie. I doubt that it will ever be a big favorite of mine, but I still found it entertaining and interesting.