Argo – Best Picture of 2012

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During the first 12 minutes of Argo, someone put a belt around my chest and pulled it snugly.  Then about every 15 minutes, it was pulled another notch tighter.  Although I had trouble breathing, it was a good thing.  Seven Oscar nominations later, it was a great thing.

Argo begins with a short history lesson to summarize the rise and fall of Iranian leaders through the second half of the 1900’s.  Then about five dozen Americans inside our embassy in Tehran are surrounded by a few thousand angry Iranians because the US government did what would be the equivalent of letting Saddam Hussein hide out in the White House after he was forcibly removed from power.  The mob climbs the wall, storms the building, and takes 52 Americans hostage but not before six manage to slip out of embassy and take refuge in the nearby home of the Canadian ambassador.  Although the CIA is immediately powerless to do anything about the 52, they’re pushed to find a way to get the other six home safely.  Every bad idea (you. will. laugh) is put on the table, but the best bad idea comes from one of the best in the CIA, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who nonchalantly shoots down all the other proposals before admitting that he doesn’t happen to have one.  Yet.

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It was 1979, as most of the music illustrates (except one Rolling Stones song that wasn’t released until two years after), and Star Wars was about as big as anything.  Star Wars was partly filmed in Tunisia, which has a landscape similar to Iran.  The plan calls for a phony Canadian film production company to get a script, create some advanced publicity, attach a couple of Hollywood C-list names, print some movie posters not even good enough to be a Star Wars spoof, and call a press conference to establish authenticity.  The only problem is that if anything went wrong, everyone would be shot as a spy.

Mendez starts with actual award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who leads to award-winning producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin).  A trip to the printer, a press release to the – uh – press, and before you know it there’s a great buzz in Los Angeles that a very bad hit is in the works.  Argo, the ship used by Jason when he sailed with the Argonauts, is the name of a real and really bad script chosen for the plan.

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All humor aside, this is a tense film, and that aforementioned belt just got pulled another notch because there’s a clock that’s ticking.  Embassy workers attempted to burn and shred as much classified information as possible, but those crafty Iranians found ways to piece things together and find out if all Americans are present and accounted for.  The Iranian housekeeper in the home of the Canadian ambassador notices that their recent “houseguests” haven’t left the house for weeks.

Although Affleck’s beard and long hair are not typical CIA, his cool demeanor and matter-of-factness fit the mold.  Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Drive) plays Jack O’Donnell, Affleck’s boss, with all the expected narrow ties, door slamming, and finger pointing that are more expected of a Fed.  Goodman and Arkin do exactly what they always do, which is provide just the right relaxed banter that makes them seem like they never need to act.  They just need to “be.”  As long as they have a role that fits their range, they could be mailing it in and we wouldn’t even know it.  I thought their enthusiasm was a little over the top because I just didn’t expect those Hollywood types to care all that much about anything outside of their own industry.  Meanwhile, if there is any real performing that needs to be done, it’s by the no-name cast playing the six hostages.  The mix of fear and anger, each rising as the days progress, is measured just right as the pressure mounts towards their impending doom.  Stay in Iran and eventually be found and killed or risk the escape and possibly be found and killed.  Pick your poison.

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I don’t want to like Affleck, but now I have to.  I thought Good Will Hunting was feel-good crap with a silly premise, too much profanity, and a stock “other side of the tracks” story.  Fortunately, my childish attitude was properly justified with Gigli and Jersey Girl, but those bad films were likely good learning experiences for him, which may lead to very good films for us.  His acting and delivery still seem like cardboard, but that fits in this particular acting role.  Affleck proves what I prefer – that he belongs behind the camera instead of in front of it and that Gone, Baby, Gone was no fluke.

If there is anything to knock in Argo, it is only minor.  The previously mentioned Stones song was out of place.  Giving Mendez a marital separation and heartache for not seeing his son is overdone for a cop or G-man, and it also makes his portrayal slightly less believable because I couldn’t be sure if he was just that cool under pressure or if, without his family, he really didn’t care if he lived to see tomorrow.  Regardless of his acting, I now understand why most film critics were disturbed that he was left out of the Best Director nominee list.  Either the Academy knows something we don’t know, or someone’s got a personal grudge against him.  If so, it’s likely for making us watch Gigli.

Of the nine films nominate for Best Picture at this Sunday’s big-ass Hollywood party, I have seen six of them.  And of the six I have seen, Argo ranks #1.  As it ended, I felt a twinge of guilt.  No, not for disliking Affleck but for knowing more about the six Americans who were trapped – but in a friendly home – for about 80 days and less about the 52 hostages who blindfolded, beaten, and held captive for 444 days.  But that’s on me, not Affleck.

Teacher gives it an A.

20 thoughts on “Argo – Best Picture of 2012

  1. I liked Argo a great deal, although as a Canadian it’s my patriotic duty to point out that Canada’s role in the hostage crisis was a little more involved than was portrayed. However, the film did a great job of keeping a good balance of tension and enough humor to show what a crazy endeavor this must have been. I agree Affleck should have had a director nod, and it will probably win best film.
    I had the really curious experience of seeing this movie in Time Square on my first night ever in NYC, and we had to walk because the subway was shut down for a bomb threat. I am sure this kind of thing happens all the time, but it made that first part of the movie all the more visceral. Consequences of decisions made long ago in the middle east. So on top of being a good film, I think it’s an important film.

    • i think it’s very likely that more of the canadian efforts were not shown due to keeping the film at about 2 hours. i don’t think it was affleck’s intention to downplay what they did, but i also realize that’s not what you’re suggesting. thanks for reading.

      • I completely understand why there wasn’t more detail given. Showing Canadian bureacracy would probably make that the worst. film. ever. I also appreciated that there was some attempt to give the hostage situation context rather than make the Iranians one sided villains. Not that there was any defense for taking hostages, but it would have been easy to make this a one sided hero film.

      • I think, not sure, that in most cases those people taking hostages are acting on information they were given by their superiors. So they don’t know that they are being lied to. I believe in Iran and other similar countries, kids are tired of everyone needs that America is evil and wants to take over the world through weapons, war, missiles, and bombs. I realize that we do act like we want to take over the world, but not to the degree that the propaganda says.

      • Oh, absolutely I agree, and I have no intention of coming across as anti-American or having much sympathy for Iran. Iran is kind of a jerk. Propaganda plays a huge role in the anti-American sentiment and it’s done by leaders who have no interest in improving living conditions in their country. I guess my point was more that it would be disingenuous for a film to gloss over the foreign policy that made conditions ripe for anti-American sentiment to take hold. I think Argo did a good job of explaining why the crisis happened without going too far in justifying it. Given the fallout of everything that has occurred in the middle east over the last century, I think any film that helps us understand is important.

  2. Best picture you say Rich? That’s a bold statement man. I’ve yet to see this but I’ve seen some fantastic film’s this year. I’m disappointed the Master is not included in the awards. Can’t wait to get around to this one, though. Great review!

    • thanks on the “great” and thanks for reading. didn’t see “the master” and probably won’t. i saw some good ones this year too, and this slightly edges “exotic marigold hotel.” then again, loved “flight” too. a good year indeed.

    • thanks very much, and i am NOT a fan of affleck. the only reason i watched this was because it is nominate for best picture, so i wanted to be able to chime in if it wins.

  3. Hi Rich,
    Looking forward to seeing this next week, though I’m not really a fan of all these “real event” movies for which we know the outcome before we see the film. But at least this is a more obscure real event about which I know little. It’s gotten great reviews so I have to think there’s something good about it. Agree with you about Good Will Hunting. How can a janitor be smarter than all those Ivy League whiz kids? Unrealistic. Math is not something you get by osmosis. Like you I formerly did not like Assfleck, but he’s winning me over more and more. Ron

    • assfleck! i’ll have to remember that one. thanks. and we probably agree he belongs behind the camera instead of in front. math is a skill, like football or hockey. you don’t get it by accident. that doesn’t account for kids with aspergers or autism and incredibly master anything with numbers, but damon’s character was nothing like that.

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