Argo falls short of being a great movie, but it certainly is an entertaining drama that looks at a significant political event in US history through the somewhat rose-colored lens of pop culture.
R for language and some violent images
Back in 1979 everybody in Hollywood was hot to make the next Star Wars-style blockbuster. Back in 1979 everybody in Washington was hot to release American hostages being held in Iran.
In Argo, miraculously enough, those two desires dovetail. The story behind Argo is so far-fetched it’d be roundly dismissed as preposterous if it weren’t for one thing. It’s based on an honest-to-gosh true-life situation during the Carter administration.
The pop culture references begin with the very first frames; an old-school, 1970s Warner Bros. logo appears then movie storyboards and comic book panels fill the screen as they depict the narrated background story of the Shah of Iran’s exile and the uprising of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The approach is perfectly fitting. Comic book legend Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America and many other Marvel favorites) did participate in the real-life adventure when the CIA went to Hollywood for help. (Kirby is portrayed by Michael Parks by way of a cameo role.)
During the madness, six Americans found temporary refuge thanks to the Canadian ambassador; their colleagues would be far less lucky, enduring the infamous 444 days of captivity that was something of a cornerstone of the Iranian revolution and a defining event of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
The mission for Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, The Town) was to rescue those six men and women. But how?
One individual suggests they “send in a Moses,” but in a situation this tight, there’s hardly such a thing as a good idea and, to paraphrase a line from the movie, the best bad idea they could come up with was to send Tony in as a filmmaker looking to make a spectacular Persian science fiction-fantasy adventure, something with flying carpets and robots.
Given a story that colorful, it’s easy to watch and enjoy the unfolding human heist in Argo.
Send in the Cavalry... or Film Crew
Affleck has managed to craft a nice career as an actor, writer, and director; with Argo he doubles as both star and director. He certainly has a knack for the craft of filmmaking and the visual attention to detail here is incredible. Argo doesn’t feel like a 2012 movie set in 1979. It feels, mostly, like a 1979 movie being viewed in 2012.
To that end, all the classic Star Wars toys lining the shelves in the bedroom of Tony’s son, Ian, transcend mere pop culture a la last year’s Super 8. No doubt that’s what filled Ian’s spare time. And, much like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, part of the charm of the storytelling is the dialing back of technology and watching tense situations unravel via long distance phone calls made on landlines in a world where the Internet is an unheard of fantasy all its own.
At its core, Argo is a spit-and-duct-tape mission that reverberates with the same American gung-ho guts and scrappiness of the Apollo 13 space mission. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when the world moved along just fine without Apple.
In addition to the visual details of clothes, eyeglasses, hairdos, and automobiles, Affleck knows how to be selective in what is and is not explained. Key to that approach is a climactic airport scene in which the subtitles are dropped while an Iranian officer detains and questions this magnificent seven in Farsi. The lack of translation helps ratchet up the tension; not knowing what is being said simply and skillfully creates the drama of confronting the unknown and the not understood.
Theatre of the Absurd
With all the attention to detail and an excellent supporting cast led by John Goodman and Alan Arkin and featuring Chris Messina and Kerry Bishé, Argo builds up loads of goodwill during the bulk of the movie and it needs it to survive the very Hollywood ending.
The final airport climax, once the Farsi interrogation is concluded, devolves into a cliché of quick editing, multiple story threads weaving together, and a – truly preposterous – conjunction of timelines that includes an intercontinental phone call covering a time zone difference of some 11 hours. Watching Iranian military haul ass down the airport tarmac in hopes of stopping an airliner is a forehead-smacking moment; surely this is where the already implausible truly diverges from the real. Indeed, Affleck has spilled the beans that the climax does diverge from reality, but it was done as a creative choice to make a better movie.
That’s debatable, given the over the top – and ineffective – nature of the chosen storytelling approach.
As the end credits begin, the photos and badge IDs of the real people are shown side-by-side with the actors’ photos from the movie. The similarities are astonishing, as is the detail in some scenes, which are compared to real news photos, including that of the then-decrepit Hollywood sign.
It’s a terrific way to finish off the movie and salute the real people involved. But there’s one guy who seemingly couldn’t cross the bridge between fantasy and reality.
Vintage footage attempts to put things in a perspective that recalls the nonexistent halcyon days of his administration. Carter attributed the hostage release to his 444 days of peaceful diplomatic efforts.
The inclusion of the Carter bit, albeit during the end credits, is the movie’s biggest laugh. Had Carter already forgotten about his failed helicopter rescue mission? Clearly he was watching the movie in his mind, the one with a glorious sunset on his presidency, elegantly lit by Caleb Deschanel.
The hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981. Ronald Reagan, who squashed Carter’s reelection bid, was sworn in as President of the United States on Jan. 20, 1981.
It was time for a reckoning and Reagan was going to kick some Iranian ass. That’s what got the hostages freed. Not the apologist mumbo-jumbo that to this day does nothing to squelch the flames of Middle Eastern revolts, mass public demonstrations centered on the burning of the American flag and, yes, the killing of our very own diplomats.