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Toronto 2012 Day 1: Ben Affleck's "Argo"

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 6, 2012 05:44 PM

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Argo.jpgIt's weird. Usually, I come all the way up and over here, to the place of our "neighbors to the north," and I'm actually kind of a rude house guest. I say please and thank you. I pay with Canadian money. I smile when a bar full of Torontonians goes nuts when the Cowboys beat the Giants, which happened last night. But the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicked off today, is proud of its Canadian movies, and, aside from a new David Cronenberg or the obligatory Atom Egoyan movie, I don't see that many. This year I'm trying to change that. I'm off to an excellent start. I've already seen two!

I mean, isn't Ben Affleck's "Argo" technically Canadian? It's set in 1979-1980 Tehran, during the Iranian hostage crisis, and focuses on the six US embassy employees who spent months hiding out at the Canadian ambassador's house. Affleck, pictured above with Bryan Cranston, plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative with a specialty in hostage extraction. His plan for getting the six out of Tehran, unnoticed by hundreds of Islamist militants and students, involves a bogus film and having the embassy workers pretend to be members of the crew, which is in town to scout locations. Mendez flies to Los Angeles and, with the help of John Goodman and Alan Arkin, concocts an entire fake production -- a work of would-be sci-fi slop called "Argo."

Something like this actually happened, and with the participation of the Canadian government, which also helped out with fake passports and was required, for reasons of diplomacy, to take credit for the whole thing. Poor Jimmy Carter couldn't brag about it at all during his reelection campaign. Anyway, it's a Hollywood movie that ultimately salutes Canada and Canadian hospitality. The suspense probably gave me some gray hairs to be detected later. "The Town" made it evident that Affleck knows what to do with a thriller. "Argo" is tense for both of its hours. I've never been this stressed out watching people shred documents.

The opening scenes are especially strong -- there's a lot of stock news footage and big crowd demonstrations that are almost indistinguishable from the real stuff. The handheld camerawork and zoom shots, the shiny comb-overs, the mustaches and tight vests, the avalanche of very good character actors: Whatever you wear to this movie will invariably winding up feeling like polyester. The only possible reason Sydney Pollack or Alan J. Pakula didn't make this movie at the height of his powers is that the details of the mission weren't known until Bill Clinton declassified the case, in 1997.

That comparison is pretty much where Affleck is as a director, a smart, talented classicist who's good with actors and the rhythms of storytelling; someone who makes Hollywood entertainment look criminally easy. He's more the 21st-century Pakula than Pollack. I don't know that Affleck could do "Tootsie" or "Out of Africa." But he's barely 40. There's time. "Argo" suggests that, in the future, he might have something more currently topical to say, the way Pakula did. My only problem with the movie is that, after the opening scenes, it loses its nerve. Despite all the suspense the movie generates and how much fun it is to watch and listen to, it's safer than something about the Iranian hostage crisis should be. For now, he's Pakula without the paranoia.

Affleck spent so many years being pilloried in the press that I think he's afraid of not being liked at the movies. Even in "Argo," with his Warren Beatty shag and Beatty's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" beard, Affleck has a body and bone structure that would make Christian Bale feel insecure. He now takes his likability even more seriously than Robert Redford. Who else would cast himself as a bullying, bank-robbing thug who evolves into the male half of a Nora Ephron movie? That's what Affleck did in "The Town." Here his charisma's dialed all the way down; he's still a leading male, even when he's recessed. But when he directs himself, Affleck is a movie star who still isn't sure how brightly he should shine.

Laurence Anyways.jpgThat's not a problem for Suzanne Clément. She practically burns down Montreal in Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways." You get where her character, Fred, is coming from. The man she loves tells her he'd like to become a woman, which he'd like to do while still in romantic and sexual love with her. Melvil Poupaud plays the man, Laurence, with a gentle masculinity (that's him with Clément above). All the flamboyance comes from Clément -- her hair, her tendency for hurling tirades at waitresses, at Laurence, at strangers. It's not a terribly subtle piece of acting, but the fire she personifies has a dozen different hues, and that counts for a lot.

Dolan, who's a 23-year-old Quebecois, is my kind of filmmaker -- up to a point. After three movies ("I Killed My Mother" and "Heartbeats" are the other two), it's clear he's a visualist and a sensualist and, it must be said, a ridiculist -- you'd know one of his movies if you saw it. It'd be the one trying to lick your neck in extremely slow motion to the best soundtrack in the world. He makes disco dramas. "Laurence Anyways" is 2 hours and 40 minutes (Ben Affleck would be on his way back to Tehran for another load of hostages in that time), and you feel most of them. But you feel them the way you feel cashmere. Of course, eventually you want to take cashmere off, lest you overheat, and, with Dolan, overheating is the only option.

The movie is so in love with Clément's opera that it forgoes all psychology. Rather, it saves its most heartbreaking revelation for its final sequence. It's not that you don't know why Fred is cracking up and acting out. She's been blindsided. But it's not until you feel what she felt for Laurence the moment they met that you grasp the specific nature of her sense of betrayal. I might have burned down Montreal, too.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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