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.
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.
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.
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.