Hide and Sneak
Is Argo worth a watch? No doubt.
Was it worth an Oscar? Not given its competition, as far as I'm concerned, as I wrote at the end of my post-Oscars post last week. But the fact that Argo is merely one of my top five or so movies of 2012 rather than the number-one pick ain't bad. Some thoughts on it that include mild plot spoilers follow the graphic.
Argo DVD package art © 2013 Warner Home Video.
Ben Affleck's feature debut as a director, 2007's Gone Baby Gone, was very good. The Town, his 2010 follow-up, was pretty good too — a heist film that due to its action elements and unconventional romantic angle predictably did bigger box office than Gone, a measured, even more character-based murder mystery. So it was as much Affleck's track record as interest in the subject matter and critical acclaim that prompted me to see Argo.
In one of those occasional pop-culture convergences, Argo is just one of several notable movies of the past year that revisits events in American history whose eventual outcome is known yet which dramatizes the road to that outcome with suspense. The Iran hostage crisis occurred while I was 9-10 years old. I have a more than vague but far less than comprehensive recollection of it, about what you'd expect for a kid that age. Before the publicity for Argo ramped up, I was honestly more familiar with the Jack Kirby drawings done for the proposed film and theme park based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light — what inspired the fake movie within the movie Argo — than with what got popularized as "the Canadian Caper" itself.
For those of us who lived through the '70s one of Argo's joys is the sense of period. The film opens, to a chuckle from the audience, with an era-appropriate Warner logo; the hairstyles, set decoration, and vintage TV clips follow suit. Argo was a completely immersive experience that really impressed my moviegoing companion and me — relating a tense, fascinating, ultimately triumphant part of the hostage crisis that we knew little about.
When the film was over we agreed on two things: The film was even more satisfying than we'd expected, and the climactic scene at the airport had darn well better have been one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" moments rather than an invention of screenwriter Chris Terrio. You watch these seven Americans — CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, and the embassy workers he's put himself in jeopardy to rescue — trying to convince skeptical Iranian security guards to let them board their plane, intercut with Iranian kids in a sweatshop piecing together shredded documents that will reveal the workers' faces, and the manipulation is as palpable as the suspense that you can't help but feel anyway. I remember thinking while watching the scene that no matter how much of it was real the filmmakers shouldn't have laid it on so thick because it was just so unbelievable. When I found that out it was in fact all dramatic license I wanted to sentence Affleck and Terrio to dramatic remedial night class.
The larger story is true — and fascinating. Mendez really did successfully mastermind a cover story casting those half-dozen Americans as members of a film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi extravaganza called Argo. Everyone acts the hell out of the material. It didn't need the embellishment. Discovering that (despite some last-minute epilogue rejiggering) the film didn't accurately reflect the contributions of the British and New Zealand diplomats as well as the refugees' Canadian hosts disappointed me further.
One more quibble that I have with the film is that the artist whose conceptual drawings were used for Argo's Argo is identified in the end credits as Jack Kirby. Kirby did actually do the drawings repurposed in real life for the Iran caper, as I mentioned above, but the actor seen fleetingly onscreen — whose character is never referred to by name — looks absolutely nothing like the man. It's a small thing that wouldn't have bothered me if the credits and press material didn't identify him, or if someone in Kirby's physiognomic ballpark had been cast. Moreover, I realize that the vast majority of the viewing audience will neither know about this nor care if told. Lack of attention to such things, however, always makes me wonder to what else little care has been given that I'm not in a position to realize, and sometimes the answer ends up being "too much".
Argo is available as a 1-disc DVD and 2-disc DVD/Blu-Ray combo (both with Ultraviolet digital copy) as well as Amazon Instant Video. If you purchase it or anything else placed in your cart during the session through the preceding links, Blam's Blog may receive a small percentage of the sale.