Sometimes, we don’t need fiction to give us outlandish comedies and incredible dramas. Real life can often provide all the material needed to make an amazing story flourish on screen. And this seems to be the year to do it - with the highly anticipated Zero Dark Thirty, the dramaticized story of SEAL team 6 and the assassination of Osama bin Laden, airing in the coming month or so, soon these tales might gain popularity. Lucky for Ben Affleck, his film about the CIA mission to smuggle 6 American embassy workers out of Iran in the midst of the hostage crisis, his film managed to come out just before what’s probably going to be the gritty warfare Oscar-baiting one.
But how does Affleck’s style of directing gritty American dramas, like The Town and Gone Baby Gone, deal with the subtleties of directing a film that takes place in one of the most complex countries in the Middle East? Let’s take a look at Argo.
For those of you who may not be intimately familar with the goings on of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a little recap. In the 1970s, Iran went through an intricate series of political shifts in power, the biggest being the American/British backed coup and assassination of Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized oil and given the power back to the Iranians. He was replaced by a Shah, basically like a King, who wanted to modernize Iran, a move that was none too popular with fundamentalists, and basically starved his own people nearly to death. He was deposed in 1979, and Ayatollah Khomeini, a very popular religious leader and politician, came back from exile to rule and remains there to this day (though now he is Grand Ayatollah). During that time, the US, who had been allies of the Shah and his regime, allowed the Shah to enter the US to get treatment for his terminal cancer. This angered many people in Iran, and thus students overran the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American hostages and held them for 444 days, when all of them were released safely back to the United States. However, during the chaos, 6 members of the embassy manage to escape and hide out in the Canadian Ambassador’s home, and if they were found, would have been executed publicly. Don’t worry, the film goes over this too in case you forget.
The story that follows is a real account of Tony Mendez played by Ben Affleck, who must find a way to get into Iran and leave with the 6 people without being discovered. While talking to his son on the phone, he comes up with the idea to create a fake movie, using the six people as members of a scouting crew checking out Iran. Thus, he teams up with CIA-aid/prop artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, and producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, to create a fake film – Argo. Thus, under this guise, Tony is able to safely sneak the six back into the US, although the case would have to be hidden under wraps and the Canadian government claimed credit for the rescue. In 1997, however, the case was declassified by President Clinton, and Mendez got the appropriate credit and acclaim for his heroic deeds.
What this film does well was build tension without vilifying the Iranian people. The very, very thin border between creating a threat by antagonists, and incorrectly portraying the struggle of an entire country as an anti-American fanaticism is one Affleck deftly avoids all together. The people are not 100% vilified, or made to look stupid – it’s made very clear that this is a very complicated issue, and that the main conflict was never directly in opposition to the revolution itself. And I think that’s something to be commended. The ending is a little bit over-dramatized, but I’m sure they wanted to end it big, and even though it’s not effective, it doesn’t detract from the film. There are some parts where the film hits some small lulls, but it could have been worse.
The aesthetic screams 1970-1980s, with the scenery and props really reflecting the antiquated vibe. I was worried that this movie would look like Affleck’s other work and be incredibly gritty, but the colors were just a little bit muted, giving an atmosphere of tension and severity without ruining the historic look. Even if some of the actors look a little strange with their retro makeover.
On the acting side, everyone is pretty good in their roles. Ben Affleck is the star, and he does a good job of being incredibly likable without stealing the entire movie (something that would have been too much, since he was also the director). There’s really not enough Alan Arkin in this, who stole parts of the movie as the past-his-prime producer. The hostages were all very believable in the role of terrified Americans in hiding. The biggest problem is that they should have been a larger part of the film – I can’t remember any of their names, and we never found out any of their backstories. While I did want them to escape, by not knowing them well, there was no urgency about it.
Overall, while the film wasn’t the greatest thing ever made, it is certainly a very good film that knows how to grab you and pull you into the moment. Even though they could have stretched the movie out to include more character development, this film represents the era and the event rather well, without too much oversimplification. History buffs will love it, but if you’re in the mood for a good spy flick before Skyfall hits screens in November, this will give you your fix. And hey, with a huge season of great films coming up, this sets up a strong standard for those yet to come.
- Great acting
- Well done design and cinematography
- Strong narrative
- Over-dramatized ending
- A little flat in areas
- Low character development