"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 justifiably 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'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.)
"ARGO" takes its audience on a roller-coaster ride from which one thinks recovery is impossible. The film's first 10 minutes are astonishingly intense, as the American Embassy is stormed. It appears to be actual footage, but it isn't.
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 to 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 became tabloid fodder. Now he's back as a moviemaking mensch.)
THERE was a party. Two parties, in fact, one for each of the two screenings, seated dinners before and after. At one point, the parties overlapped. It seemed the entire world was there. Just a few: Columnist Joe Klein, former N.Y. school chancellor Joel Klein, Bette Midler, Patrick Wilson, Ted Koppel, Deborah Norville, Bryant Gumble (very trim), Anthony Edwards, Steve Kroft, Christiane Amanpour, Mariska Hargitay, Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg, Richard Kind, Jeremy Jordan (star of Broadway's "Newsies"), Brian Williams, Liz Cho, Alina Cho, Michael Douglas, Blaine Trump, Bruce and Nan Weber, Donna Karan, Bob Woodruff, Steven Soderbergh, Barbara Walters, Adam Arkin, Bob Balaban, et al.
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 and Sting. To have been a fly on that tablecloth to have heard 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," 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 U.S. Embassy in Libya and the murder four Americans there, "Argo" is also a cautionary tale that clearly hasn't cautioned anyone.
In the Middle East, the more things change, the worse they become for Americans and everybody else.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)