Film review: Argo 2012
I took my middle son to see this amazing movie last night. It is based on the declassified true events of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian covert operation to extract six American diplomatic personnel who escaped the embassy, and get them out of revolutionary Iran. The other (captured) American hostages remained in captivity for 444 days until freed during Reagan's tenure but through the work of president Jimmy Carter (who deserves the credit).
The Canadians are the real heroes of this story (and the invisible CIA staff). New Zealand gets an early mention, "the Kiwis", who failed to assist (this is a misrepresentation). The Canadian ambassador and his Yoko Ono-looking wife bravely harbour and then help spring the American escapers, at considerable risk to their own lives. (Of historic note is that in 2012 - 32 years later - the Canadians have just withdrawn all their diplomatic staff from Tehran in support of Israel.)
The year is 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah and established the sinister-looking Ayatollah Khomeini. The American embassy is overrun due to outrage about American sanctuary of the Shah. Most staff are captured, but six escape and hide in the Canadian ambassador’s private residence. Argo is the story of the CIA covert operation in close cooperation with the Canadians to smuggle them out as a fake Canadian sci-fi film crew.
The title is derived from the name of the fake film script, itself an allusion to the vessel of Jason and the Argonauts (of Golden Fleece fame) and their perilous journey. The movie has a crude but funny line used as something of a code word, "Ar go f*** yourself,” used thoughout.
It's directed by and stars Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez, awarded the Intelligence Star by Carter, finally made public under declassification by Clinton. Affleck is masterfully restrained; this is not Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis fighting un-American devils. The script works up appropriate angst with a broken marriage and yearning to see his son, which ups the humanity and the cost of putting himself in harm's way. The characters are all well cast and brilliantly wardrobed in 1980s beige. Great attention is paid to appropriate props such as period telephones. I was struck by how different the world was without cellphones.
Other actors you’ll recognise include: Bryan Cranston seriously playing Jack O’Donnell, the CIA subsection chief and Affleck’s boss, perhaps better known to us as the comic father of Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston shows his serious acting side here and is well cast. One of the escaped six around whom this story revolves is Tate Donovan playing Bob Anders, who has the distinction of having being engaged to both Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Aniston). John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the two veteran Hollywood producers who home-base the fake movie, manipulating the press and Hollywood to build credibility for the fake film. "If I’m going to produce a fake film, I want it to be a hit." These two roles are a key strength to the movie, providing a fascinating look inside the relational workings of 1980s Hollywood. Arkin's dialogue is fantastic.
Shots of the dilapidated "Hollywood" hill sign reflect Affleck’s ambivalence about the glitz of Hollywood. Argo feels more like a Sundance film propelling Affleck's talent up alongside the reputations of such star/directors Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford or Kevin Costner, who all make thoughtful films centred on humanity (Dances with Wolves, Flags of Our Fathers, The Clearing) and eschew Hollywood.
This is an amazing film, beautifully restrained, a tribute to Affleck’s obvious directorial talent. I appreciated his use of tension, especially heightened at the airport scene, the delayed embarkation at the airport, "final call", doors closing, Republican Guards running down stairs, a locked glass door, a locked gate, chasing the plane; AK47s pointed at the plane’s wheels. Affleck uses simple things to create drama. The bizarre scene with an angry shop owner cranks up the tension, which crawls up your leg into your heart; the Republican Guard's critical phone call to Hollywood to check credentials, Goodman delayed answering by a cheap movie being filmed outside. Ring Ring Ring Ring. It is armrest-gripping stuff.
I especially appreciated the realistic portrayal of the CIA as administrators and bureaucrats, which is what they really are. Gone are the cliches of Denzel Washington, macho goons fighting for American righteousness, corrupt bosses in league with shadowy figures, or hi-tech wizardry. Olympic typewriters, toll calls, paperwork, and real competing political pressures.
Interlaced with actual footage, audio from Carter, and 1980s music (Sultans of Swing was great), the film has a wonderful emotional climax that cannot help but move you (perhaps to tears – of relief and adulation) yet it avoids cheese. This is a masterful film, and will be a candidate for Film of the Year. I highly recommend it.
Modern Postscript: The current US presidential election adds poignancy. Many equate Obama with the least appreciated Democrat presidency of Jimmy Carter, which is starting to become a historic meme. The critical acclaim growing around Affleck’s Argo draws attention to the Iran hostages crisis of 1979-1981 and the Carter administration as a parallel to Obama’s handling of Libya:Benghazi and Iran:Israel in 2012. This only serves to add historicity to Argo as we stare at the American servicemen killed in Benghazi and Afghanistan and compare Obama's handling with Carter's.
View all contributions