Argo Review: Forget What You Never Knew About the Iranian Hostage Crisis
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Argo Review: Forget What You Never Knew About the Iranian Hostage Crisis

By Amanda Mae Meyncke | Film Reviews | October 12, 2012 | Comments ()


Argo is a movie that will happily please a wide swath of the population, captivating and realistic, moving and intricate, broad and simple enough, and tinged with the thrill of reality. Whenever you base something on a true story you run the risk of failing to include some important detail, some small matter, but Argo feels wonderfully full, complete with the details and tension that elevate a great script and premise into something more -- a fantastic film.

At the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, the CIA endeavored to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran, hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo director Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who is an expert at getting people out of difficult situations. Though there are several plans on the table, the final one involves Mendez convincing the Iranians that the six Americans are part of a film crew, scouting locations for a science fiction movie. Unfortunately in order to make their work convincing, Mendez will need to enlist the help of a well-known Hollywood make-up man, rope in a producer, and set up a real film production company. People's lives depend on the success of the imaginary film, and it all must take place quickly and secretly.

The film is set in 1979, and is thoroughly convincing, from the care taken with costumes and sets, to the less obvious details -- fonts, music, small camera movements and film quality choices. Affleck is progressing as a director in a tangible way, expertly building the tension and effectively leveraging suspense. Parts of the film are downright exciting as you continually wonder if these seven people will ever get out alive. The threat is immediate and violent, as the Iranians are relentlessly searching for the hostages, and every action undertaken by the hostages or by the CIA holds a greater global importance as the threat of all out war looms large. Every part of the scheme feels fragile, from attempting to convince the CIA to the set-up of the film production offices to the moment by moment existence of the hostages in a time and place where Americans could not have been more unwelcome.

The performances are finely tuned and a great example of ensemble acting. No one person stands out in this sea of strong performances, and no one person is required to bear the brunt of carrying the movie. As the Hollywood producer and make-up man, respectively, Alan Arkin and John Goodman effortlessly steal every scene they're in, and Affleck hands it to them on a golden platter when he's around them, failing to even really try for anything more than a limp presence on his part. In fact much of Affleck's performance is quiet and unassuming, which allows for everyone else to shine all the more. If it's intentional, it's a genius move that is highly effective. Bryan Cranston as a CIA overlord is equally enthralling and the six hostages, played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and Rory Cochrane, are the picture of fear and uncertainty.

There are some genuinely funny moments in the film, comedy highlighted at the exact appropriate time, much of it coming from the scenes in Hollywood. The Hollywood aspect of the film is remarkable, from the idea that it's really that easy to set a picture up, to the bravado and backslapping as they attempt to get press enough to convince the Iranians that Argo is a real film. It gets a little "inside baseball" at times, but mostly it's exactly what people might assume the process to be like. The joy of the Hollywood scenes comes from the fact that while movie buffs will find them extra hilarious, regular people won't be alienated.

That is the greatest strength of Argo -- that there's something for everyone, and not in a pandering or idiotic way. There's no shortcuts taken here, just strong storytelling and characters we can't wait to explore. So rarely do we see movies that remind us of how much we really enjoy movies. Movies so holistic and carefully rendered from beginning to end, with a story that intrigues, performances that are mesmerizing and details that have been considered and chosen with care, and in that respect, Argo is a particular sort of gift.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • PDamian

    Good grief, this was wonderful. Tightly plotted and beautifully acted, with Goodman and Arkin in performances that are flamboyant without being over the top. I could have wished for a little more oomph from Affleck's acting, but there's no denying that he's going from strength to strength as a director. This one, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, should be locks for Oscar nominations.

  • Jeremy Carrier

    It was pretty good! Affleck’s direction, pacing, editing continues to improve, a nice mix of tension and humor, levity amongst all the seriousness.

    Various others are right in that there isn’t much of an emotional core to Argo. There are no well-developed characters, and Affleck’s Mendez is about as dull as dishwater. There’s some perfunctory attempts to show he’s got a family, aw look at that, but that’s about it. Affleck plays it as straight arrow as possible, carrying a single solemn look on his face for 95% of the movie. It’s a very bland lead performance, and I know a different actor could have shaken it up a bit; somebody a bit more unhinged like Cage or even his brother Casey, inject some fear or excitement into the role.

    Goodman and Arkin are fun, if not particularly noteworthy performances from either of them(look for John Goodman playing this exact same character in Flight next month!), and Bryan Cranston just does what he’s suppose to. It’s not exactly a very imaginatively cast film, and there’s definitely no intense crackerjack performance like Jeremy Renner in The Town to propel it out of “respectable drama/thriller” territory.

    The airport stuff near the end is really tense, though! Exaggerated because it’s a Hollywood movie, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t biting my nails anyway.

    It’s a good movie. Not as good as Gone Baby Gone, not a great film, DEFINITELY not a Best Picture winner, but it’s a good, solid adult drama from an increasingly impressive director. Good job Ben Affleck.

    Now please, stop acting in your movies.

  • kirbyjay

    Do you really think Nicolas Cage raging about Zeus' butthole is necessary to propel a respectable drama/thriller out of respectable drama/thriller territory when the film is meant to be a respectable drama/thriller?

  • I have to disagree about Affleck's performance - I think he kept it simple because the character is someone who must blend in. The guy has to get people out of dangerous situations by not drawing attention to himself. So, it makes perfect sense to me that he'd be the least flashy person in the room, the last likely to give anything away.

  • Jeremy Carrier

    I get that, but as someone who keeps his emotions in check for 99% of the film, moving through the movie like he just grew four inches overnight and is trying to get comfortable with his new build, it makes for a dull protagonist. They don't have to be zany and off-the-wall, but they should at least be interesting.

  • Stellamaris2012

    Just bought my tix for the Sunday matinee at 'Mo Slaughter... can't wait!
    FWIW, I thought the trailer for this movie was fantastic - gave just enough insight into the movie, highlighted both the tension as well as the humor, without spilling any details about the resolution. And excellent use of Aerosmith.

  • kushiro -

    For anyone interested in knowing more about the hostage crisis, I heartily recommend "Guests of the Ayatollah" by Mark Bowden (who also wrote Black Hawk Down). It is riveting and intense, provides comprehensive detail and insight into the entire situation, and I could not put it down. Also, it's where I learned the word "haboob", which is always delightful to say. It's also super-cheap at Amazon, or free in your local public library.

    End of PSA.

  • Thanks for the recommendation. I thought "Black Hawk Down" was excellent, and I've been wanting to check out more of his work.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Haboobs are free at the library?

  • I loved the little details - the banners being carried by the Iranians in the street were not in English, the numbers on the phone were different, and that they didn't try to translate every word of Farsi - and that it was more menacing because they didn't try to explain everything. I thought Affleck did a really good job of making a story we already know the ending to suspenseful.

  • mograph

    Have you asked any Canadians what they think of this film?

  • becks

    You shouldn't be down voted for this comment because I think it's been fairly well publicized that the movie is a bit of American propaganda and that it was, in fact, the Canadian who was the real hero of the situation. After the film was finished, most people involved in the situation itself informed Affleck that the representation was offensive and not factual (he'd even gone as far as including a post script at the end that insinuated that Canadians had wrongly taken credit for the operation) so he showed the film to the Canadian ambassador in question, Kenneth Taylor, and allowed him to revise the post script though didn't change the film to make it any more accurate.

    Perhaps the film seemed very detailed and accurate to the reviewer, but it was not. As a work of fiction I think it looks pretty great though and I am excited to see it since I've enjoyed Affleck's other projects.

  • junierizzle

    You mean Hollywood took creative license? Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

  • becks

    No, I mean that Hollywood seemed to go out of its way to misrepresent the facts in a way that offended the true hero of the situation. A little bit more serious than creative license.

  • junierizzle

    I actualy learned about the contraversy after I saw the movie. And Canada came out looking pretty good. They even got all the public credit, which is what evrybody really wants. Taylor is complaining about all the stuff that didnt really happen. All the creative license the filmmakers took to make a better movie. Apparently Taylor masterminded the whole thing. But they dont say to what extent. Was it his idea to make a fake movie?

  • Amanda Meyncke

    I pretty much meant the details of the time period were accurate. I like my coffee cups PERIOD APPROPRIATE.

    Obviously movies are all made up fakey fake play time la la land.

  • mina

    On the contrary, the details of what he shows inside Iran are accurate by 0.1%! The dress code of people especially women is wrong, the signs posted on the walls are all from at least a few years later than 1979, there are so many inconsistencies and details he got wrong from the Iranian point of view. So, anyways, the things I am talking about only catch the eyes of an Iranian viewer who is old enough to remember the revolution or have lived in Iran for a few years after the revolution. In any case, your general comment should have been made more thoughtfully :-)

  • JohnnyL53

    Do we as American moviegoers actually give a fuck about the Iranian point of view?

  • Stellamaris2012

    Well, shit. I guess if we started give a fuck about how others view our portrayal of them NOW, the world might stop spinning on its axis...

  • mograph

    ... but they do create the popular version of history, don't they?

  • becks

    Haha, the mustard yellow fridge in the header is definitely screaming 1979 so I'd have to concur about the accurate use of colour.

  • kushiro -

    Apparently, they worked out some sort of compromise with Ken Taylor (the Canadian ambassador to Iran at the time), so if he's happy, I can't get too worked up about it. Anyhow, here's the official Canadian version of the story:

  • mograph

    The compromise was worked out after production.

  • becks

    Oops, you weren't here when I posted. Sorry for the repetition!

  • AngelenoEwok

    I'm not sure I could hand the movie -- I almost had an anxiety attack just reading that article.

  • Amanda Meyncke

    (One small matter did bother me, and forgive me, but the water tower at the Burbank Warner Bros. lot is shown about three times. Two of those times they carefully digitally painted in the older logo, and one time they simply tried to obfuscate it with lights, but the modern logo is visible in the darkness. Why do something 66%? I realize this is the definition of nitpicking, but it plagues me and perhaps we cannot choose our battles.)

  • mina

    It's good that you're not a nitpicking Iranian. I am :-) and there are at least 15 things that were totally wrong which caught my eyes and bothered me :-)

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