With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
Speaking to an audience of theatre owners at the 2009 ShoWest exhibitor’s convention, director Michael Bay famously derided the burgeoning trend of using 3D to draw moviegoers back to the multiplex. Shortly thereafter, he began production on the mega-budget sequel Transformers: Dark of the Moon … in 3D. What triggered the abrupt change of heart? In the end, it was a tag-team effort on the part of Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg and Hollywood’s most vocal 3D booster, James Cameron, that led Bay to embrace a format he once declared a "gimmick."
Bay revealed as much last night at the “3D: A Transforming Visual Art” event at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where journalists, film students, and various miscellaneous industry types gathered to hear titans Cameron and Bay talk 3D shop, and to catch a preview of the first five minutes of Dark of the Moon. In between technobabble-laced discussions of f-stops and dynamic ranges, some interesting tidbits emerged:
Bay is a 3D convert, but not a zealous one: Conversation about the format took on a distinct pattern, with Bay at various points lamenting some hassle or limitation of 3D filmmaking, followed by Cameron assuring him that the issue had been addressed by recent advances in technology … or at least would be in short order. Among several complaints, Bay decried the bulkiness and techno-complexity of the 3D camera rig, which caused multiple headaches for his camera crew, particularly his Iranian-born cinematographer Amir Mokri ("You have to understand: People from Iran are very passionate," Bay explained) and served to slow down his famously fast shoots.
3D added $30 million to the Dark of the Moon budget: “Bottom line: If you want to do 3D right, it’s going to be expensive,” said Bay. Cameron was quick to assure him that the added cost would be easily offset by extra earnings from 3D showings, which Bay grudgingly conceded as likely.
Bay still prefers film over digital: Bay considers himself an “old-school” director, still partial to Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses. (And all of his CGI shots are rendered in a Commodore 64, the same computer Cecil B. Demille used for the visual effects in The Ten Commandments.) Though most of the movie was shot digitally, Bay still relied on film for close-ups. “I don’t like the digital look at all” for face shots, he asserted. Cameron, predictably, disagreed, claiming that “as far as I’m concerned, digital has surpassed film.”
Crappy 3D is bad for everyone: Though they differ in enthusiasm for the format, the directors are clearly united in their disdain for bad 3D. Without naming names, Bay derided filmmakers that employ “bullshit 3D” that leaves audiences feeling cheated. Cameron’s words were more tactful but also more dire, labeling poorly-rendered 3D as “a danger to the business.”
Oh ... and about that footage: (Minor spoiler alert) The audience was treated to a preview of the first five minutes of the film, a prologue montage that serves to explain how how an Autobot spaceship ended up crash-landing on the dark side of the Moon. Upon being made aware of the craft's existence, a CGI JFK orders the inception of the Apollo program in order to ensure that Americans get to the craft first -- and the advanced technology it presumably contains -- before the Russians do. The footage was dazzling, the storytelling a little clunky, the crappy CGI JFK a needless distraction. (CGI Nixon, on the other hand, looks fairly decent. Go figure.)
And one more thing ...
Crunches can be creative: Bay revealed that he conceived one of the film's signature action sequences, in which several elite military types base jump off of Chicago's Trump Tower and glide through the Windy City's skyline at breakneck speeds, while doing crunches at the gym. Incidentally, that also happens to be how Hitchcock got the idea for Psycho's famous shower scene. Like Bay said, he's old-school.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon opens everywhere July 1, 2011.