Reviews In The Nick Of Time: Argo

by wjw on October 16, 2012

Argo  does not seem to be a movie that appeals to the teenage audience.  I don’t think there was a single person under forty in the theater, and most were eligible for Social Security.  I haven’t been in an audience of so many gray-haired people since The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  (Retirees love them some Salander.  Go figure.)

I’m not sure that anyone else in the audience was there for the same reason I found myself present: to trace the line from Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and the artwork of genius comics creator Jack Kirby to the CIA’s plan to create a film company for the purpose of smuggling besieged diplomats out of Tehran back in 1980.

So what happened in this: when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took fifty people hostage, six diplomats slipped out a back door and ended up as the guests of the Canadian ambassador.  After the death (by laughter, apparently) of a plan to have the escapees take  300-mile trip to the border, by bicycle, in the dead of winter, a CIA exfiltration specialist named Tony Mendez was tasked with getting the six diplomats out.  His rather unorthodox approach consisted of teaming up with Hollywood producers to make a science fiction film called Argo, based on a script that had been floating around for some time.   Argo had a pseudo-Middle Eastern setting, and the diplomats were to be disguised as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations in Iran, then flown home on Swissair.

Now Argo was, in fact, a screenplay based on Roger’s Lord of Light.  Roger had traded the screen rights to his publisher in exchange for something else he wanted, because— right then, in the mid-Sixties— the cost of the technology to bring Lord of Light to the screen would have been prohibitively expensive.   Roger knew the movie would never be made.

The publisher did sell the movie rights, for not a lot of money, to someone or other, and the rights bounced along for a while.   At one point it was in the hands of an Icelandic film company, to whom the idea of making a movie set in a subtropical Hindu paradise probably sounded pretty good.  Be that as it may, the rights eventually ended up with someone named Barry Ira Geller, who wrote a screenplay and hired comic icon Jack Kirby to design the characters and sets.  Also involved were Buckminster Fuller and makeup artists Maurice Stein (academy award for Planet of the Apes) and John Chambers (who did creatures for the Planet of the Apes TV series).   The idea was to build Nirvana as a permanent set in Aurora, Colorado, after which it would become an amusement park called either Zelaznyland or Science Fiction Land, depending on who you talk to.

The production collapsed in a crossfire of lawsuits and indictments for fraud.  (Roger, I know, contacted a lawyer, since he remembered selling film rights but not amusement park rights.)  Apparently Geller still owns screen rights to the book and is still trying to get some kind of production going.  You can read his version of the tale on his own site.  (And also buy reproduction Kirby artwork, if that’s your thing.)

What neither Geller nor Roger knew was that John Chambers had CIA connections, having used his makeup talents to help American spooks disguise themselves.  And when Tony Mendez asked him for help, Chambers gave Mendez the Jack Kirby art and a copy of the screenplay, which was renamed Argo.

Rather than trying to make the fugitive diplomats inconspicuous in hopes of sneaking them out of Iran, Mendez decided to make them huge.  Hollywood huge.  He arranged a blaze of publicity for what he claimed was a Canadian film company trying to make an exotic science fiction film on location in Iran.

And he succeeded, and the diplomats flew out on Swissair, and the Canadians were given full credit.  (They took most of the risks, after all.)  You can read the story in Wired.

So now Ben Affleck has directed and starred in a movie about the Argo affair.  And he’s done a very good job.

No mention of Roger Zelazny, though, or Lord of Light.  No mention of Zelaznyland.  The comic art presented in the film isn’t in Jack Kirby’s signature style.  And though Michael Parks is given a credit for playing Jack Kirby, I don’t remember seeing him anywhere in the film.  Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the director’s cut, but for right now, Affleck’s reserved most of the screen time for himself.

Despite these disappointments, Argo is a dandy little thriller.  It opens with the storming of the embassy, very gripping and rendered in a pseudo-documentary style.

(In fact, to give the movie its 1970s look, Affleck disdained digital photography and shot the movie on film.  He then “cut the frames in half, and blew those images up 200% to increase their graininess,” according to IMDB.  To be sure, the result looks authentic to the period.)

The terrifying realism of the opening is soon contrasted with Hollywood hype as the scene shifts to John Chambers, played by John Goodman, and a (presumably fictional) producer wonderfully played by Alan Arkin, who will probably get a supporting actor nomination.  “If we’re going to make a fake movie,” he snarls at one point, “it’s going to be a fake hit!”

Terror and suspense alternates with Hollywood bullshit until it’s impossible to sort one from another.  The script is smart and leavens the tension with cynical humor.  Affleck is a more than competent director, and keeps the camera whirling through the scenes like a dervish.  There’s some jerky-cam, but not too much.  And though Affleck gives himself a lot of screen time, he gives juice to the smaller parts and hires some very good actors to play them.  (Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber.)

Towards the end, I found myself impatient with all the artificial ways the filmmakers found to crank up the tension.  I realize that you can’t have the escapees simply get on the plane and fly away, as I assume pretty much happened in reality, but having the plane take off just ahead of a speeding truck filled with heavily-armed komiteh thugs seemed a bit of a stretch.

So: no Zelazny.  No Kirby.  But first-rate Affleck.  Check it out.

kat October 16, 2012 at 10:17 am

*puts Argo on the to-see list*

Interestingly, there’s a documentary that’s just popped up on Kickstarter which promises to go where Argo didn’t and delve into the bizarre history of the script:

Here’s hoping they can get it made, because honestly, this is a story that needs more than one look.

Paul (@princejvstin) October 16, 2012 at 10:37 am

I had no idea Argo was based on Lord of Light. Huh!

I suppose its not that much of a surprise, since Damnation Alley did get made into a movie…

Steve Halter October 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

A few months back was sitting in a theater and saw the preview for Argo. It didn’t take too long into the preview before I thought, “Hey! I know that story. And it didn’t happen quite like that (preview), but looks pretty close.”
Glad to hear Argo is decent. It’s even more fun when we know the “secret” backstory.
Hopefully they’ll do a good version of a Lord of Light movie someday. Tech is almost caught up to where it could be done.

TJIC October 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Argo has been on my must-see list since I saw the trailer. As much as I dislike what I know of Affleck (at least earlier in his career), it sure seems like he’s developed into a really really solid director.

Alan Arkin is underrated – he’s magic in everything he does. Loved him in Little Miss Sunshine, for example.

May very well see the movie tonight (half price Tuesday tickets == date night in this household).

John F. MacMichael October 18, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Thanks for giving us the backstory on “Argo”. I had heard about Zelazny’s “Lord of Light” being used in this operation but I was never sure whether the story was true or just a fannish legend.

I saw “Argo” a couple of days ago. Allow me to second your recommendation on it. Excellent flick, exciting, realistic and with some great dashes of humor as well.

John Appel October 19, 2012 at 1:30 am

This was the “date night” movie for my wife & I last Friday, and it was well worth being the first non-kid movie we’d seen together on opening night in… well, we aren’t sure how long. Best spy movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.

What I really appreciated were all the atmospheric touches that let you know “You’re in the 1970s, baby”. Smoking on airplanes! Not a single computer in sight in the CIA headquarters. Stacks and stacks of manila folders and papers. (And no Post-it notes.) The innards of the transistor radio-cum phone scrambler, which piqued a brief moment of nostalgia for my long-ago days as a radio technician.

And the music – this was the soundtrack of my early days in high school. Well-chosen pieces that complimented the on-screen action without overshadowing it.

I was actually shocked at the small size of the audience. I hope the word-of-mouth gets more bodies into the seats; this one deserves a long run.

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