"IS THAT your best bad idea?"
"That's the best bad idea I've had today!"
So goes one of the many surprisingly funny exchanges between Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston in Ben's astonishing, riveting, hugely entertaining and mostly-historically accurate movie "Argo."
This is the true tale of six Americans who managed to escape the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the Shah-toppling revolution of 1979. (Fifty-two other Americans were held hostage at the Embassy for 444 days.) The six justly nervous people who escaped the wrath of the mobs were holed up at the private residence of the Canadian ambassador and his wife.
Argo reveals the hilariously implausible plot to free them. How? To pretend the Americans are Canadian filmmakers, and spirit them away after their "film location" duties are complete. The operation is led by CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck). He is both supported and opposed by his boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston -- whom you may recognize as the star of AMC-TV's Breaking Bad.)
Maybe any filmmaker could have created something reasonably entertaining from this material. But only Ben Affleck, I think could have brought forth such a seamless, wildly nerve-wracking, uproarious and amusing crackerjack entertainment.
This is Affleck's third directorial effort. His first two, Gone, Baby Gone and The Town, were critically acclaimed, but they don't hold a candle to Argo. I have to agree with Ben's great friend, Matt Damon. He was there at the screening all evening to give Affleck support. He said, "Argo is the greatest thing he's done yet." (Matt's head was shaved, again. He scraped it off for Elysium, but just as it was growing back, he was needed for retakes. "Oh, it's only hair!" said Matt, good-naturedly.)
Then, quickly, we are in Hollywood, where schlocky producers Alan Arkin (absolutely brilliant) and John Goodman (absolutely charming) get on board with the CIA to publicize a "fake movie." They are going to try to convince the Iranians that such a movie is truly happening. At one point, arguing over casting and cost (of something that will never exist) Arkin snaps, "Listen, if I'm going to make a fake movie, I want it be a fake hit!"
The back and forth, between L.A. yuks and very real terror in Tehran (along with real vintage news clips of people hanging from lamp-posts) shouldn't work. But it does. I have rarely seen such accomplished filmmaking. Certainly not this year, so far. The acting, from top to bottom is flawless, from Cranston to Victor Garber to Tate Donovan to Chris Messina to Clea Duvall to Zeljko Ivanek to Richard Kind. Every role, no matter how brief, is indelibly played. Affleck, handsomely sporting a dark beard, is rather stoic, but so, too, was the real Mendez. The cinematography is breathtaking. The period aspects of 1979/80 are expertly captured. And the last 15 minutes? Bring oxygen; it is that intense! Yes, of course, some dramatic license is taken -- that's why they call it a movie.
Ben Affleck has made a real "movie-movie" that leaves its audience wrung out, exhilarated and misty-eyed. Bravo. Prepare for the Oscar, kid. (He already won one with Damon for screenwriting Good Will Hunting. Then he descended into tabloid hell. Now he's back as a movie-making mensch.)
Had a great talk with one of the producers of Argo -- the amazing George Clooney -- and sent love to his dad who he says has recovered well from the stroke that beset him down in Georgetown some months ago. (This was after he and George were arrested at a sit-in protest in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.)
One of the hosts, ABC's Nightline correspondent Cynthia McFadden had quite a table -- it boasted among others Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Oliver Stone, Brian Williams, Sting. To have been a fly on that tablecloth would have been hearing the conversation between Stone and Sting. The latter was poured into a pair of black jeans. When somebody commented on the firmness of his gluteus maximus, back came back the reply: "Sting is simply not a mortal. We have to accept that."
Living Landmark Harry Belafonte was also there along with Mike Nichols, the intellectual's intellectual Ingrid Sischy, Vanity Fair's Beth Kseniak and her writer guy Walter Owen, MGM's onetime star Arlene Dahl, Tommy Hilfiger and his purse-designing wife, Dee. One wag quipped, "If a bomb dropped here tonight, Obama would definitely not be re-elected!"
Bryan Cranston, so great-looking in a beautifully tailored suit, said: "I know my role on Breaking Bad is the best character I will ever play. Ever. And I fully embrace it. I'm not all 'Oh, will I ever live up to this again?' Because I won't! It's an actor's dream and I am awake in it and loving it."
Peggy Siegal put this triumph together, natch. She wore a short red woolen suit and was last seen twirling and showing it off to Bette Midler. (Peggy and Mr. Clooney also had a 'hair moment' when posing together. He messed her do. She messed his salt and pepper thatch. They patted each other's hair down after. Cute.)
As for Argo -- which eventually became the catch-all phrase "Argo'n'fuck'yourself!" -- I don't know when a film has so moved me before. It is terrifying to re-live those days. The fact that this all happened in my lifetime is quite amazing. In the wake of the recent attack on the Libyan Embassy and murder of our ambassador and three other Americans, Argo is also a cautionary tale that clearly hasn't cautioned anyone.
The more things change, the worse they become, in the Middle East for Americans and everybody else.