The premise of Argo is almost as ridiculous as shitty Star Wars knock off in the movie and yet, that’s what makes the movie so brilliant. The fact that this turned out to be based on true events (I’m not going to pretend to know how close the movie was to what actually happened) makes the story something that was begging to be made into a movie, and Ben Affleck really did deliver here.
Ben Affleck has not had the greatest of careers when it’s come to film choices. WIth a few exceptions, everything between Reindeer Games and Surviving Christmas has been utter crap. His recent decisions to move to the director’s chair has really turned his career around though. Gone Baby Gone, though a bit raw in direction was a very good film, and it was nice to see him write something again. Then he came out with The Town, which he again co-wrote and directed, which most people would agree was the best heist movie since Heat (if not also in many ways very similar to Heat). Now we get Argo, which I have to say is probably his most complete work as a writer/director. WIth this movie, we see a man who has really taken the time to study film and refine his directorial style.
The plot focuses on the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, but not on the hostages that were stuck in the US embassy. Instead it follows the story of the 6 Americans who escaped the embassy and were in hiding in the Canadian embassy. Simultaneously, the Iranian government has taken all the shredded documents are piecing them together to learn the identities of the missing Americans, and the CIA is frantically trying to find a way to get them out. That’s when Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the idea of creating a fake movie, and listing the six americans as part of a film crew, checking out various locations for where to shoot and, surprise, they decide to look into Iran. With the help of academy award winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and a Hollywood insider, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), they create an entire backstory for the fake film, get it into the news, and make it credible enough that Tony can now go into Iran and pull the Americans out. They even have a full press event where they found actors to do a full read through of this horrendous movie to give it more credibility. At one point during the event, Lester keeps getting pressed for a reason that the film is called Argo; is it a reference to Jason and the Argonauts, is it short for something? Having run out of credible answers Lester just replies, “it means Argo fuck yourself.” With the back story now solidified, Tony makes his way to Iran by way of Turkey, meets up with the Americans, and trains them to learn their new identities well enough to get passed Iranian security. So, with some elbow grease and a lot of guts, the Americans all make it out safely under the guise as a Canadian film crew, happy ending for everyone… except the Iranians I guess… and the hostages who were stuck in the embassy for another 400 some odd days.
There’s one part of the film that is stuck so clearly in my head, which perfectly shows how much Ben Affleck has grown as a filmmaker. He just arrived in Iran and is being driven to the Canadian embassy. He looks out the window and the first thing we see is an Iranian KFC with a couple women chowing down on some finger lickin’ fried chicken. Then as the view of the street progresses, we see protestors, and the mood darkens, and the final shot is a man who was hanged on the street, and we see how truly dire the situation is. It’s just such a perfect sequence to set the mood for the rest of the movie, that even when things don’t seem that bad, there’s always something potentially horrible right around the corner.
My one, very minor, issue with the movie was the take off sequence as the plane carrying the Americans takes off with the Iranian army driving on either side of it, trying to stop its take off. If this is what really happened, then so be it, all the better, but I feel that this was more of artistic license being invoked. The believability kind of dies here, as we have to assume that 1) the children putting the shreds of paper together finally put together all the photos of the six Americans, right as they’re about to leave, 2) it takes almost no time to get that information to the military office and very little time for them to get to the Canadian embassy to check if they Americans are there, and 3) that there was no way for them to contact that control tower and hold the plane once they realized where the Americans were. To make the time seem more realistic they have the Tony and the sic Americans detained at the gate as their story is verified, and tension is added as John Chambers and Lester Siegel are delayed in getting to their producer’s office so they can answer the phone and confirm that Tony is traveling. Lots of gimmicky things going on to delay the protagonists, not that it really helps our villains, as they’re able to get on the plane with little trouble. So instead of contacting the plane via the control tower and telling it to hold its take off, they drive along side it and do virtually nothing as the plane takes off. It’s a little too hollywoodish for what was otherwise such a well made film.
But, don’t let that one issue detract you from seeing the movie, it was wonderful to sit through and the acting was superb. Honestly how can you say no to a movie that has Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston in it (and some Kyle Chandler for the Friday Night Lights fans!). On a final note, be sure to sit through at least the first part of the credits, there’s some lovely audio and still photos to enjoy, so don’t miss it by running out of the theater too early.