US (2012) Dir. Ben Affleck
Most of you I am sure are fully aware of the plot for this Oscar winning film so I’ll keep this synopsis brief – When the US gives asylum to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during the Iranian revolution in 1979, the American embassy is attacked and the staff taken hostage by revolutionaries. However six managed to escape to the home of the Canadian Ambassador and the CIA are tasked with getting them out alive. With options thin on the ground, they turn to exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who concocts an audacious plan to pose as a film producer and get the six Americans out under the pretence of them being part of his film crew.
Based on a true story and the memoirs of the real Tony Mendez, Argo is a well paced and neatly crafted escape drama that doesn’t let go from the opening frame until the last. However, the liberties it has taken with some of the facts and the supplementary drama facets have divided opinion with many pouring scorn on the entertainment aspect and claiming this is simple US propaganda, because of the way the Iranian revolutionaries are portrayed as wild eyed fanatics. Is this a case of some people take films like this too seriously or having too high expectations because its roots are based in reality? The key word is “based” on – it’s a dramatisation and not a blow-by-blow documentary re-enactment.
It can’t be denied that the story makes for a wonderful piece of fiction and if this was the case then maybe the “propaganda” accusations might hold some water. Instead the fact that it actually happened is remarkable on its own so why not share the story with everyone? The objection might be that it smacks of back slapping since the US isn’t shy about waving their flag in the faces of the rest of us – although it was the Canadians who were largely instrumental in execution of the plan (sorry to any Yanks reading) – but like I said, this is a fascinating story that needs to be told and Ben Affleck and co deserve a pat on the back for doing just that and making a suitably tense and engaging political thriller. There are many articles and other reviews around that focus on this argument who can articulate their points far better than I can, so feel free to seek those out if that is your wont.
With the situation being the volatile political minefield that it was, we bear witness to the procrastinating and political buck passing of the CIA and other areas of the US authorities during the programme, especially at a time when Mendez needed them the most. One minute the project is given the green light, the next someone else pulls the plug and demands Mendez return home essentially leaving his compatriots to their fate. Affleck uses this bureaucratic meandering to create some palpable tension as Mendez has to decide whether to obey orders or tell his superiors “Argo F*** yourself!” and do what is right for the people and his mission.
As fantastic as the story sounds it is fascinating to see how it all came about and how willing Mendez’s connections in the film business were so willing to help circumvent and manipulate the movie business to get the project off the ground. John Chambers (John Goodman) was a genuine Oscar winning make-up artist although canny producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) was fictional (and probably a composite of so many real life producers which probably explains why he was so much fun!) and for this writer at least, the fake film set up with the Star Wars/Star Trek/Flash Gordon tributes made for an enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek section of the film, largely because such blatant rip offs did genuinely exist in huge numbers post Star Wars – one fact Affleck can’t be accused of misleading the audience with!
It is probably this aspect, along with the superb technical achievements that will win over many film fans. Argo is well shot, well acted and neatly constructed film that peaks and troughs where every good drama should. Even with the liberties taken, there are enough nods to genuine incidents with credible and accurate recreations of key scenes from the period, such as the flag burning, the various public demonstrations and rallying that are a matter of public record and thus lend some authenticity to the proceedings. They’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the cast resemble their real life counterparts as much as possible, especially the six refugees Mendez is tasked with saving. Genuine archive news footage was used for further credence and on a technical front, Affleck shot the film on old style film then enlarged it by 200% to attain that grainy 70’s effect. They also used the Warner Brothers logo from the 70’s too.
Argo is a film that courts controversy if you know where in the film to look for it. If one is to judge it purely at face value, it delivers an immersive and captivating film of bravery, ingenuity and fraught political tightrope walking with high production values and credible performances. It has a fascinating story to tell and it tells it in the typically bombastic Hollywood fashion. If however the appeal is the fact the source material is a real life incident and one is expecting something less sensationalist and more true to the facts then putting your cynicism on hold for the duration might be a good idea, otherwise you’ll be twisting yourself in knots over this glossy dramatisation.
Worthy of a best film Oscar? Perhaps not but a decent film and worthy of a watch nonetheless.