Odd that I’ve only just gotten around to finally watching this Best Picture winner from 2012. Its rather weird watching a film that has won such awards, isn’t it? People likely watched and enjoyed it just as a good film beforehand, but once a film has that Oscar glory its quite another thing watching it for the first time. Suddenly its Best Picture, Best of the Rest, something special… Only, is it?
To be clear, this is a good film. A very good film. Its based on a true story- you know, one of those True Stories that are so larger than life and Crazy Bizarre that no-one could have possibly made it up. Set in late 1979 when Islamist militants stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran, it concerns six embassy staff who escape the hostage situation in the embassy and manage to find refuge in the Canadian embassy. However their danger remains very real, as the Iranians eventually realise six Americans have gone missing and start hunting them down. If they are caught, the Americans will very likely be executed as spies.
The CIA sets up an operation to get the six hostages out of Iran, which involves CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the film) posing as a movie producer who is making Argo, a science-fiction film hot on the heels of the success of Star Wars. With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez makes Argo appear to be a legitimate Hollywood enterprise, convincing the Iranian authorities that he is leading a six-person production crew searching for locations to shoot the film. The plan is for Mendez to fly in, link up with the six embassy staff, set them up as his film crew, ‘scout’ some locations in Tehran and then fly them out on a commercial airline in full view of the Iranians.
Argo wears its period setting as a badge of pride, depicting the styles and mood of the late 1970s not only in the film’s art direction but also in how the film is shot, lending it the feel of a 1970s movie, right down to the typeface used on the films credits- it looks and feels and sounds authentic (filmgeeks will love spotting visual references to sci-fi films/iconic images/props of the period). Original footage from newscasts and archive material is edited in pretty much seamlessly, lending it a convincing docudrama feel, something only heightened during the film’s end-credits when it is shown just how close the recreated scenes compare to the real. Its all quite an achievement.
Its a very intense and affective thriller that only falters towards the end, when director Affleck lets the film slip into standard Hollywood territory, an edge-of-your-seat escape with the airliner being chased down the tarmac by gun-wielding militia in trucks. I guess you can forgive the film taking a few liberties with the story to raise the stakes/tension but its still regrettable. The remarkable story the film tells should be enough – is enough, surely- so it doesn’t really need to tip things further into the fantastic. Suddenly, and not without some irony, the sense of reality falters and you feel like you are watching just a movie. Its a curious misstep, but maybe the film getting Best Picture would indicate it was no misstep at all. Any film that sets up the premise of Hollywood saving the day and itself being the hero was pretty much a cert to win Oscar glory wasn’t it? I mean, these guys vote for themselves and everyone loves to be a hero.
Agh. Stop being such a cynic, eh? Good film.