Argo is one of my favorite films of the decade. This is a balanced film that does everything that it needs to do. It’s a mature film that is serious and yet has just the right amount of wit and humor and sarcasm to make it entertaining without being overly heavy and too dark. Argo is as tense as it is entertaining and that tension runs from the opening moments right through to the last few minutes of the film. I remember thinking the first time that I was watching the film that there was no way that it could keep up this pace, and yet it did without ever doing anything absurd or unrealistic. Again, this is a mature film that showed a new maturity for Director Ben Affleck and completely changed Hollywood’s perception of the star.
Affleck had been in Hollywood for 20 years before he made Argo, starting out in films like Dazed and Confused and making a name for himself by co-writing Good Will Hunting as well as costarring in it with Matt Damon. But after that film was nominated for Best Picture and won Affleck and Damon the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Affleck’s career went through several peaks and valleys with the valleys outnumbering the peaks, and there were many rumblings about the tenability of his career. Then Affleck made a name for himself as a director with Gone Baby Gone in 2007, which was critically acclaimed (scoring 94% on Rotten Tomatoes), but had a somewhat lackluster performance at the box office. Affleck came into his own as a director with The Town (93% on Rotten Tomatoes and $92 million domestically), a crime drama about robbing banks in Charlestown, MA. Both are excellent films, and shows the potential that Affleck has as a director, and reinvigorated his career.
Argo took Affleck’s career to the next level, and one of the great Oscar tragedies of the Academy’s history is the fact that he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, because this is an exceptionally well-made film. I say that because there is a level of detail in Argo that you don’t often see in films that are based on true stories. I realize that some of the story was embellished for dramatic purposes, but watch the end credits where they show the actors next to the real life people that they played. They did an astounding job of making the actors look almost exactly like the real people. They then took news footage of the actual storming of the American Embassy, as well as footage from Tehran during the hostage crisis, and matched it with what they were shooting in the film to an incredibly close degree.
As far as the story of the film goes, it is expertly crafted and dynamically told. It starts out in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and a narrator gives us some background of the history Persia and of the Iranian Shahs leading up to 1979 when the Shah was exiled to Egypt and fled to the United States for cancer treatment. The pro-western government was replaced by an Islamic dictatorship led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Since the Shah was given asylum in the United States, Iranian students protested outside of the American Embassy in Tehran demanding the Shah’s return until their tensions boiled over and they climbed the gate and stormed the building. Seeing what was coming, six Americans escaped and found refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber).
Sixty-nine days later in Washington, D.C. CIA Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in by Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to formulate a plan to get the six Americans out, because if the Iranians capture them, they’re sure to be killed badly, violently and publicly. The plans that the State Department has come up with range from the ridiculous to the absurd, and Mendez is at a loss himself to figure out a realistic way to get them out until he’s having a phone conversation with his young son while they both watch Battle of the Planet of the Apes on TV. Seeing the desolate desert world in a science fiction movie gives him the idea of creating a fake movie production and go to Iran under the pretense that he’s scouting locations as a Canadian film producer.
This ends up being the idea that they go with, and Mendez flies to Hollywood where he meets up with Academy Award winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who puts him in touch with Producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who reluctantly agrees to this crazy plan after seeing footage of the hostages on his television. For all intents and purposes, they put an entire movie production together, complete with a marketing plan and a press release in Variety. Even people on the lot are asking Seigel about his new project, and he and Chambers remain an integral part of the plan as they have to be ready to answer the phone in case anyone from Iran calls to verify their existence.
Mendez arrives in Iran posing as a Canadian film producer and keeps up the ruse by visiting official offices and requesting the necessary permits. He finally gets to the Canadian ambassador’s residence where he meets the six Americans and tells him his plan to get them out, and that they all have to learn and memorize their Canadian credentials and identities. Needless to say, they’re less than optimistic about their chances. Joe Stafford is especially reluctant to try anything because he fears not only for his life, but for the life of his wife Kathy, who is also one of the six. He thinks that staying put is best, but the ambassador knows that all of their safety is more and more at risk with each passing day. Tensions are also building because they believe that the Iranian housekeeper suspects that they’re the six Americans that her countrymen are looking for. However, when given a chance to reveal them to the Revolutionary Guard, she does the right thing and lies to them, which forces her to flee to Iraq at the end of the film.
Reluctantly, they go with Mendez to scout the Bazaar as a potential location with someone from the Iranian cultural contact. Kathy is posing as the film’s art director and is taking pictures of the bazaar, which draws the ire of a local shopkeeper and starts to draw a crowd of interested people. Unbeknownst to the Americans, all of their pictures have been taken while in the bazaar, and they luckily get away without further incident. Everything seems to be going as planned until O’Donnell calls Mendez and tells him that the operation has been called off because the government is too afraid of being embarrassed in an international incident if they get caught. Mendez is crushed. He’s never failed to get anyone out, and he’s developed a bond with these people and desperately wants to get them home. He despondently goes back to his hotel as the six Americans, not knowing the change in plans, celebrate.
Overnight, Mendez decides that this is not how it’s going to be, and he calls O’Donnell to tell him he’s disobeying orders and moving forward. The problem now for O’Donnell is that since the plan had been aborted, the only person who can reauthorize it so that the plane tickets are waiting for them at the airport is President Jimmy Carter. The tension of the film goes to an almost unbearable level as Mendez and the six Americans make their way through the checkpoints at the airport while O’Donnell is simultaneously and improbably getting word from the President that it’s a go, and the tickets are released at the very last moment.
Oh, and one other thing is happening as well. The Revolutionary Guard has discovered who the six Americans are and is racing to the airport to stop them. Then in a not-so-subtle bit of irony, they’re all detained by a guard at the gate to get on their plane. The only one among them who speaks Farsi is Stafford. Cooly and calmly he tells the guard about the movie and what it’s about and what they’ve been doing there. He shows them the storyboards that have been mocked up, and nearly convinces the guard, who takes one of Mendez’s business cards to call the studio. Unfortunately Chambers and Seigel were away from the desk and can’t cross a street in the lot because a shoot is happening. Then the phone starts ringing and for a couple of unbearable minutes we’re not sure what’s going to happen. Finally Seigel says screw it, and ruins the shot and Chambers answers the phone to save the day.
If you are an aspiring screenwriter or film maker, this is a film you should study. Argo is a well-crafted film that starts out tense from the beginning and then the tension slowly builds from that beginning point and builds higher and faster as the story progresses. The ultimate crescendo of the story is completely satisfying, and the story hits all of the requisite beats along the way.
As mentioned above, it’s a serious film, but there is a lot of wit to it supplied by John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. They all have some great and memorable lines, like when Tony Mendez and Jack O’Donnell are pitching their idea for the rescue to the Secretary of State, they’re asked if this is their best bad idea and O’Donnell responds, “This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far.” When Mendez goes to see Chambers about pitching the idea to him, Chambers is on the set of a monster movie and tells him that the target audience is going to hate this movie. Mendez asks who the target audience is, and Chambers responds, “Anyone with eyes.” Finally there is Lester Seigel, who steals several scenes, like when he and Mendez pitch their fake idea to a studio flunky who tries to tell Seigel he’s past his prime. Seigel then eviscerates the unsuspecting flunky by debunking all of his reasons for not moving forward in one of the great movie rants of the decade. He also has what may be the signature line of the film when someone from the press keeps asking him questions about what Argo is about and he can’t answer them. Finally, when they ask him what Argo means, he replies, “Argo, fuck yourself.”
I should also point out that John Goodman (The Artist & Argo) joined Guy Pierce (The King’s Speech & The Hurt Locker) Russell Crowe (Gladiator & A Beautiful Mind), Walter Pidgeon (How Green Was My Valley & Mrs. Miniver) and Clark Gable (It Happened One Night & Mutiny on the Bounty) as people who have starred in back to back Best Picture winners. Goodman has had a really nice career in both television and films, and comes across as one of Hollywood’s nice guys. Personally I like seeing someone like him join this list.
Did the Academy get it right?
Yes they did. There was some good competition in 2012 from films like Django Unchained, Life of Pi and Lincoln, which I feel was Steven Spielberg’s best film since Schindler’s List. Any one of those three films would have been a worthy winner, but I feel that Argo was better than all of them. I also thought that Zero Dark Thirty was very good, and the rest of the films nominated probably wouldn’t have been had we still been in the 5 nominee cycle. I liked Silver Linings Playbook, but didn’t love it as much as I hoped I would. I thought Les Miserable was interminably slow for the first half, but did pick it up and was very good in the second half, but you can’t win Best Picture if you’ve only made half of a good movie. I did not like Beasts of the Southern Wild, although the performance by Quvenzhane Wallis was remarkable. I didn’t see Armour so I can’t speak to that film. For my money, Argo is one of the best films so far of the decade and was definitely the best film of 2012.