Like a lot of Best Picture contenders, Argo has been swallowed up by the hype of Oscar season. The perceived slight of director Ben Affleck turned the former dark horse into the current favorite, prompting all kinds of speculation as to whether the film itself actually deserves its front-runner status. Don’t worry: it does. Amid a very strong field of contenders (at least five of the nine nominated films legitimately deserve to win), it makes a damn strong case. Hit the jump for the full review.
For all his accomplishments, Affleck still struggles at times to shed his image of a cinematic lightweight, something Argo should put to bed for good. We already knew he was good with the likes of Gone Baby Gone and The Town under his belt. Argo fully elevates him to a director of substance, with notable things to say about the world we live in and a heartfelt auteurial voice to deliver it. He uses a shade more humor here than he did in his earlier movies, but only because the story he tells is so absurdly far-fetched that it just had to be true.
In the heat of the Iranian hostage crisis, when the U.S. Embassy fell and Tehran put itself permanently on our shit list, six American workers secretly bunkered inside the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) residence. Their capture by the Iranians was only a matter of time, unless somebody gutsy enough stepped up to the plate. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a quiet CIA agent with a brilliant plan to get them out: he would pose as a location scout looking to shoot a science fiction movie in Iran, then sneak the six Americans out disguised as members of his crew.
The effort takes a combination of Hollywood hype and real world daring, as Mendez solicits help from a pair of showbiz insiders (John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to build buzz for his phony movie. If everyone in LA thinks it’s real, the Iranians will too; all they have to do is check the pages of Variety. Affleck confidently alternates between the ridiculousness of the ploy and the very scary reality on the ground, as well as the way the two ultimately fed into each other. Only Hollywood would be arrogant enough to plow forward with such as scheme, and therefore it couldn’t possibly be the CIA.
Argo shows us how the plot worked step by step, full of fascinating details without skipping the human drama. We feel every white-knuckle moment from the Americans: the boredom, the helplessness, the suicidal desire to show themselves and get it over with just to escape the maddening tension. That gives Mendez a ticking clock to beat, as well as providing natural suspense that Affleck knows how to ratchet tight.
Dramatic license intrudes upon the verite from time to time – the final chase involves too many contrivances for comfort – but Argo compensates with simple yet effective techniques to keep us pinned. For all the elaborate ruses and well-rehearsed lies, things boil down to someone looking the right way at the wrong time, or a ringing phone that someone needs to pick up. Therein lies the key to Affleck’s skill as a director. “Simple” doesn’t mean “stupid,” and while he lays out a story of surprising complexity, he reveals it to us in terms that anyone can understand.
And the results speak to more than just espionage and last-minute rescues. Thirty years ago, when the film took place, image and reality were rapidly blurring together. The Iranian revolutionaries televised their screeds for the world to here, eagerly seizing the idea that perception translates into power. Mendez’s ruse hinges upon the same idea, with fairy dust and make-believe suddenly morphing into real, tangible effects. Argo serves as a quiet reminder of that not-so-quiet truth, one that dominates our world today and might have made for a much less happy ending had the CIA tried something else.
Is it the best picture of the year? Hard to say. We had some damn good ones in 2012, and singling out any of them does the remainder a severe disservice. But Argo certainly roars with the best of them. More importantly, it launches its director into the realm of true artists, someone less interested in vanity projects than in engaging his audience with real ideas and significant themes. Most of those guys on the Best Director list know how to do that. The Academy should have made room for Affleck, now no more a shallow piece of tabloid fodder than those long-ago hostages were filmmakers.
The Blu-ray clearly reflects Warner’s belief in the film. Strong picture and sound clarity befit a Best Picture front-runner, and Argo’s historical roots get the full treatment here. The topper is a Picture-in-Picture feature containing interviews from most of the major players (including Mendez, then-President Jimmy Carter and former hostages), a 17-minute documentary with more interviews from the real-world players, and two additional documentaries covering the film’s devotion to authenticity. The Blu-ray also includes a 45-minute television special from a few years ago – Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option – and an interesting commentary from Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio. When coupled with an already fantastic movie, the extra features turn this Blu-ray into an absolute must-buy.