Argo: A Tale of Uncle Sam Doing It Right

Today is the first of many #MovieMondays to come from this blog. My first review on my list of Best Picture winners is Argo. I hope you enjoy this review. As always, leave comments for discussion.

I don’t like scary movies. I get way too into them; I invest too much. I can’t sleep for days afterwards and anything that goes bump in the night means that it’s Lucifer himself coming straight for me. No, thank you. After admitting this fact, you can call me a multitude of names all having to do with some two-legged fowl. I will gladly accept all of them. I don’t do scary movies. Period.

Now, this is an odd introduction to my first movie on this blog, Argo, as it’s not even remotely close to scary. Or it least it doesn’t try to be. But, that’s not to say that this movie didn’t scare the pants off me anyway. Ben Affleck’s Argo follows six American refugees as they hide and escape from a theocratic militia in the months following the take-over of the American Embassy in Iran in late 1979.

The group escapes the Embassy just as it’s overrun by protestors before they find refuge in the home of the Canadian Prime Minister. Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) is a CIA agent who is especially good at getting people out of bad situations. He’s charged with getting into Iran and getting those six out. The plan is mostly stupid, the CIA fake a film being commissioned and the six pretend they are a Canadian film crew on a location scout.

Full disclosure, I’m way too young and wasn’t around for this event when it happened. Plus, it’s new enough that the number of history lessons about the fall of an American-friendly Iran in favor of one that is more traditional is equal to zero. All of my ignorance, coupled with movie’s demonstration of the slow descent into madness in Iran, made the plight of the Americans seem hopeless.  

But, Argo is more than a thrilling movie, I contend that it’s also a mirror that’s been turned to ourselves, both individually and as a culture. Be warned, there is some serious tinfoil hat stuff coming in the next few sentences, so bear with me. The movie shows us for how easily fooled we all can be by some Hollywood smoke and mirrors. Mendez, with the help of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), crafts the narrative of the narrative of Argo. They hold press events, get coverage and even have some storyboards relating to their fake movie. It’s essentially a propaganda campaign financed by the CIA to fool the Iranians.

To me, this sounds very familiar to actual propaganda that we see in our current times. We are the Iranians, getting fed a spoonful of crap while the real stuff blows up behind us. And the illusion slips by while we chase after it, knowing that it’s a ruse, but it’s too late. It’s gone, we have been fooled and we just waiting for the next shoveling of crap to come our way, just so we can fall for it all over again. That’s the end of the tinfoil hat time.

Argo won Best Picture for a reason and if you watch it, it won’t be hard to see why. It’s an incredible feat of writing, editing, set design and directing. Now, for the review:

Writing/Dialogue

Argo’s screenplay was written by Chris Terrio. The screenplay was adapted from Tony Mendez’s book “The Master of Disguise” and an article from Wired Magazine’s Josh Bearman, “The Great Escape.”

One of three awards that Argo won at The Academy Awards that night was for best adapted screenplay. As stated above, this was a movie that relied heavily on its dialogue to keep us engaged and it did its job perfectly. The movie’s most memorable line is probably “Argo f*** yourself,” and it almost becomes the battle cry for this group of rather odd folks that pull of this escape. But, more than that, the movie uses the dialogue in its most efficient manner, it needs very few long monologues to get to the point.

I can’t give this one a zero, it did win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. 1.

Directing:

As a warning, this category may be the hardest for me to diagnose during the course of this blog. Regardless, I’m here, trying to learn more about the craft and the art of making movies, so I will press on. Argo was directed by Ben Affleck. He was not nominated for Best Director, which was the fourth time in Oscar history that the director of a Best Picture winner was not nominated for directing.

The fact that he wasn’t nominated was a real tragedy. Argo flows so flawlessly that you almost forget that you have a director. Every one of the actors on-screen turned in a great performance (except for the director himself, but I’ll get to that soon) and the overall tone of the movie was one of desperation. Affleck’s creativity is on full display here, from acting to editing to cinematography, this is a great directing job. 1.

Set Design

Argo is set in 1979-1980. Every detail in the movie is faithful to the time period. Cars, computers and hotel rooms are many painstakingly recreated in the movie. The attention to detail was complemented by the cinematography, too. Throughout the movie, there were shots that seem to linger too long on certain details like an ash tray full of still-burning cigarettes. Ben Affleck’s long, mop like hair as well as bushy mustaches, bright blue suits and big, thick glasses help to identify the characters lost in their time, too. But more than era, the feel of Argo sucks you into the story. The recreation of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran or a hanged man swinging from a crane help add to an increasingly frenzied situation in a country in chaos. Stateside, too, Argo faithfully portrays what I believe the inside of the CIA would look like, even if most of it was built from scratch. Argo shows off what a powerful set and design can do to a story. While you’re watching it, there’s no way you don’t think you’re not in 1979 or 1980. 1.

Cinematography

As I previously mentioned, the cinematography of Argo does a great job of showing us everything about the story. But, to be fair, that’s what a camera’s job is for. So, I haven’t really accomplished anything here.

But what about the feel of the movie? The camera does that too, and the best movies can do this without us even knowing it. Argo is no different. There were, to my untrained eye, really two techniques that Rodrigo Prieto, the director of photography, used in this one to convey certain feelings. These both had to do with what the camera was sitting on, whether it was stable, like on a tripod, or if it was handheld. The camera was stable when it needed to be, to show a calmness in an otherwise “un-calm” movie. When it was stationary, the action on screen reflected that, where some of the characters, like Tony and his wife Christine sharing an intimate moment.

When the camera was on the shoulder, it had the opposite effect: chaos. The initial raid of the American Embassy right at the beginning of the film was a great example of this technique.

However, as I mentioned before, the movie is an allegory for how we are fed distractions on the screen (or on our phones) and we consume them. A vast majority of the one-on-one dialogue sequences in Argo are not only the classic shot, reverse shot, but also over somebody’s shoulder. There’s always an actor (or a double) in your way of seeing the whole picture. Therefore, the effect is to make us feel like we are peeking in on their conversation but not directly part of it. That’s what movies and stories are: they make us feel like we are part of something, that we are related to the characters in some way, when, in reality, we aren’t even close. We’re just seeing a small slice of what these people do, how they speak and what their mannerisms are. In other words, we are seeing a movie, within a movie, within the making of a movie. The camera’s position teases us into thinking that we are part of the script, some star in a role that we yearn to be, but we are, in fact, not part of. Well done, Rodrigo. 1.

Sound

The sound in Argo is wide-reaching. Jumbled (and loud) crowd sounds are prevalent in the riots outside the American embassy and when the team travels to the Grand Bazaar. The phones are constantly ringing and people are always chattering in the CIA headquarters. But any good movie has great sound effects, both big and small. After all, everything needs a sound.

Argo’s sound is distinctive thanks to its score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s nothing special, like something that Hans Zimmer or John Williams composed. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t help the movie along. The score is full of riffs that are positively Middle Eastern. The score is happy, uplifting and inspiring when it needs to be and subdued at other times. Additionally, Argo uses many period pieces from popular artists like Van Halen. Oddly enough Van Halen and Alexandre Desplat go together quite well. I was pleasantly surprised. 1.

Acting

Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston are listed as the principal actors. There are several good performances that sell the movie, but for this review, I’ll focus on these four.

Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez) Showing slightly more effort than when he was Bruce Wayne in Batman vs. Superman, I’m convinced that it’s a physical impossibility for Ben Affleck to raise his eye brows. Affleck resumes his typical brooding, unsmiling demeanor to play Tony Mendez. Yet, for as much as I maligned his performance, this role is one of his best. His acting style seems to reflect perfectly in the character of Tony Mendez. Affleck is no nonsense in this very serious movie and he’s very magnetic. I couldn’t take my eyes off his character.

Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell) Can he just be in every movie, please? God, I love him. Some people my age (twenties) see him as the caring father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle from the early 2000s. That’s not me. My best experience with Bryan Cranston is when he played what is probably his most memorable performance as Walter White in the hit series Breaking Bad. Argo was shot while Breaking Bad was still running on television and so it’s hard to imagine that it was difficult for Cranston to slide from one serious role to the next. But, he does it with ease. He flawlessly portrays Jack O’Donnell, a CIA boss who is sarcastically funny, serious and to the point all at the same time. Versatility should be Cranston’s middle name.

Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel) Nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Siegel, Alan Arkin delivers a terrific performance as the “Argo f*** yourself” director of the fake movie. His quick dialogue and excellent delivery is prototypical of Arkin, but that’s what makes him great. He reminds me of that grandpa that everyone would love to have but would be too afraid to wake up from a nap.

John Goodman (John Chambers) Argo provided somewhat of a career boost for John Goodman and it was great to see the big man at it again. He plays an expert makeup artist in Hollywood who is also a CIA contact. Goodman has the same charm in this production as he did in Barton Fink. In Argo, though, Goodman is not literally Satan as he was in Fink. He exudes the kind of sincerity that makes you want to sit down and have a beer with your new friend and then invite him for dominoes with the wife.

In short, the acting was extraordinary, despite Affleck’s inability to show any reasonable positive emotion. 1.

Plot

Argo is not a scary movie by design. But, again, it scared the Hell out of me. From the very beginning, you’re thrust into a dangerous and frantic situation in a country during the height of drastic upheaval. The opening scenes are perfect case studies in mob mentality and frenzy. Coupled with the tension of the people trying to get visas out of Iran at the beginning, the thrill can sometimes be too much to handle.

But, it’s not all thrill and high blood pressure. There are some tender moments, too. At the same time as the events in Iran are taking place, Tony tries to maintain a relationship with his young son while also trying to repair the one with his estranged wife. This side plot does nothing to further the grand plot of the movie, but it adds a little layer of humanism to Tony Mendez. I think Tony needed it as he’s entirely too serious all the time. Again, Ben Affleck is unable to raise his eyebrows.

Nothing in Argo goes right and the cast must avoid constant delays, uncertainty and the threat of public execution. This leads to a general sense of uneasiness throughout the entire movie. By the end of it, you’re gasping for air because you’ve held your breath for the last five minutes, maybe more.

Even though this movie takes place during a revolution, Argo doesn’t need to rely on mountains of spent bullet casings, elaborate explosions or car chases to thrill the viewer. The tension in Argo comes from terrific writing, pacing and stellar performances from its lead actors. The story isn’t so convoluted that it’s hard to understand not only the story, but also the implications and the stakes. Argo demonstrates all of those things beautifully by taking a very tense situation and making it understandable to those of us (like me; not my fault, I’m just young) who have very little knowledge of the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis.

It’s worth noting there are some historical inaccuracies in the movie. The six didn’t really have any trouble getting out of Iran in the airport. Also, the British and the New Zealand hadn’t turned the refugees away as the film alleges, but rather aided in their hiding. However, I think these are fine. Hollywood is more than welcome to dramatize stories, as long as they don’t veer too far from the truth. 1.

Bonus Points

As I mentioned in the introduction, I have three extra points that I can award in to any category or to any point in the movie. I’m giving one point to Argo’s editing. It won the Academy Award for Best Editing. It was terrific, bar none. There was one instance in particular that really stuck out to me. At the beginning of the movie, shortly after the American embassy is captured, the news of the crisis reaches the U.S. The shots jump in rapid, and frenetic succession from the CIA, to the State Department to the White House. The shots focus on different men who have to solve this crisis. It shows the panic and uncertain that followed the capture of the hostages. This was a brilliant moment in editing.

Final Score: 8/10

Oscar Facts

Argo won the 85th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 24, 2013 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Seth MacFarlane hosted the ceremony. Argo beat out Armour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture. Ang Lee won Best Director for Life of Pi. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his role as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln while Jennifer Lawrence won her first Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. At 22, she’s the second-youngest winner of the award in the ceremony’s history. Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Django Unchained and Anne Hathaway got the Best Supporting Actress nod from her work in Les Misérable. Life of Pi won the most awards with four while Lincoln nabbed 12 nominations. Argo was nominated seven times and won three awards, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing.

The award for Best Picture was presented by Jack Nicholson and Michelle Obama, with Obama at the White House. She read the envelope in a stunning silver and black dress. Argo’s award was accepted by the producers of the movie, Grant Heslov, George Clooney and Ben Affleck.

Next Week

On the next post, I’ll take an in-depth look at Annie Hall, which won the 50th Best Picture in 1977. I admit, I know almost nothing about this movie. Argo was an interesting experience for me because I had already seen the movie. But Annie Hall is the first of many movies on this adventure that I’ve never seen. The trailer is here.

Argo (October 12, 2012)

Winner, 85th Academy Award for Best Picture

Directed by: Ben Affleck            

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Written by: Chris Terrio, Tony Mendez, Joshuah Bearman

Produced by: Ben Affleck, Grant Heslov, George Clooney

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto

Music by: Alexandre Desplat

Edited by: William Goldenberg

Running time: 120 Minutes

Budget: $44.5 million

Box Office: $232.3 million

Production Companies: GK Films, Smokehouse Pictures

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

4 Comments

  1. Great review! I have not seen the movie, but really appreciate an all over view and opinion. Looking forward to reading all about the other movies.

    Like

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