Argo *uck Yourself!
A Film Review of Argo
By: Lawrence Napoli
I’m just kidding about the title kiddies. Argo really is an exceptional film and despite Ben Affleck’s repeated attempts to fuel his directing career by siphoning off his acting abilities, the end result is a film that surpasses The Town and offers up a dynamic political thriller to an audience interested in the state of world affairs and history in particular. This dramatization of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis presents one of the most dangerous contemporary conflicts between the West and the Middle East that would be quite prophetic in establishing the manner in which the US would involve itself in that region for years to come. This film is not without its historical inaccuracies and the critics that are quick to mount the “how dare you!” bandwagon, but it is also meant to be a form of entertainment with a modicum of intelligence. That being said, every alteration (big or small) enhances the drama, but may inspire some negative energy which I will address towards the end of this review.
Catch us if you can.
Hollywood and the federal government: a match made in heaven, yes? Film production and government have been intertwined since the technology was invented due to its unprecedented ability to communicate to masses of individuals and to do so at an emotional level when done properly. However unlikely that La La Land would have been so active a participant in international espionage, the fact remains that this event happened and this film does a masterful job at setting the table for the audience. The plot, setting and primary characters in this kind of movie could easily be lost amidst the constant flashing back and forth between the multiple perspectives, but Argo keeps the plot moving thanks to good pacing and a constant crescendo of suspense. This prevents the audience from losing interest due to lulls in the action where dialogue is featured for exposition. The screenplay by Chris Terrio based on the book by Tony Mendez (The Master of Disguise) and the article by Joshuah Bearman (Escape from Tehran) is to be commended for presenting a compelling fiction capable of capturing the interest of the engaged audience member, young and old.
In these tumultuous political times between the US and any other country, the concept of shooting an America vs. Middle East film requiring the credibility of believable exterior shots is not a challenge to be taken lightly. The locations in Argo look exquisite, but I was surprised to learn that the closest this production got to the Middle East was Istanbul, Turkey. Making this film “look” the part of a 1970s period piece was apparently the number one priority for director Ben Affleck who used regular film to capture the action, cut the frames in half then proceeded to blow the images up 200% to reproduce the signature grainy film stock of that era. As savvy as Affleck may or may not be about the technicality of film production, his coordination with director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto to achieve this should be recognized for being quite effective. I also cannot write another word without singling out costume designer Jacqueline West for absolutely nailing the clothing of the period both in America and in the Middle East. This synergy is most effectively experienced by the audience during the final credits scroll when we are shown photographs of the actual people and places of the original crisis.
We are totally NOT Americans sneaking out of Iran.
Argo is a dialogue driven drama that succeeds due in large part to a veteran ensemble cast. My only criticism is that none of the marquee roles are filled out by women. Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, John Goodman as John Chambers and Victor Garber as Ken Taylor bring a collective assortment of intensity, levity, charm and dignity to their roles respectively. Their individual moments onscreen certainly highlight the fact that the effort made to rescue Americans under siege was not only a collaboration among individuals, but of governments. The American perspective, however, was not the only performance worthy of merit. Every actor of Middle Eastern decent brought their A-games to Argo, but my favorite was the intensity brought to the screen by Farshad Farahat playing the role of the officer at checkpoint #3 before the hunted Americans are allowed on the planes leaving Tehran. Although his screen time was extremely brief, the impression he leaves is lasting and utterly terrifying.
Cue the emotional climax.
Ben Affleck playing the lead role of Tony Mendez received a bit of criticism for stepping into the role of a man who is 50% Mexican decent. I too find it distasteful for white actors (who happen to be Hollywood A-Listers) to pilfer ethnically diverse roles more adequately filled by ethnically diverse actors. Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia certainly comes to mind, but all things being equal, Affleck doesn’t get the opportunity to direct this film without starring in it and if the man isn’t involved at all, who knows if the film gets made in the first place? Such is the nature of the Hollywood machine, but thankfully, Affleck’s performance is tempered and refrains from showing off his leading laurels akin to Mel Gibson. Mendez is meant to be an agent who gets the job done by drawing as little to no attention to himself or his mission and Affleck is equal to the task of playing this role in a focused manner.
Cranston brings it.
Although I enjoyed the entertainment value of this film, there is one thought that manifested once the final credits rolled and to this moment I am completely incapable of shaking. There is a very distinct sentiment of anti-Arab throughout the entirety of this film. Naturally, no one would condone one group of people holding another group of people as hostages at gunpoint regardless of the ethnic makeup of either group, but the pro-Americanism of Argo is clearly eclipsed by Arab fear and disdain. The only Iranians not depicted as utterly indoctrinated by western-hate are the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper and daughter. This may not be the most responsible of depictions, but it serves the pedestrian purpose of creating an opposition to the protagonists that is malevolent and considerable. This, once again, goes to the point of not accepting a Hollywood production as fact (even if it’s “based on a true story”), but the power of the emotions that are stirred up by a film like this is real. Let’s just say that the American perspective on this film wouldn’t mind seeing the entire Middle East nuked off the face of the planet. That, my friends, is an extremely dangerous feeling and if experienced without context and a responsible mind, could foster pure hate and result in evil behavior. As an American, I know that I don’t have anything close to what real Middle Easterners feel about the West and America in particular because everything I see on CNN amounts to flag burnings and gangs toting AK-47’s. It would be nice if Hollywood, as the pinnacle of visual art, were more responsible with its creativity, but every day, Hollywood proves itself less as art and more as business and there’s more money to be made in war than in peace.
There's no business like show business.
Still, Argo is a very good film worthy of anyone interested in experiencing a thriller not driven forward by adrenaline filled car chases and shoot-outs. This is a thinking person’s thriller, but I would remind the viewer to take everything he or she sees and hears with a tremendous grain of salt. Compartmentalizing this film as strictly fiction is the way to go, but if Hollywood finds the need to make more films that pit the West against the East, it should find a way to be less stereotypical in its presentation. I got a lot more than what I expected from Argo and I will not be surprised to see this film take best picture on Oscar night, but my vote (one that doesn’t count) is up for Lincoln. Who knew 2012’s Oscar contenders would be so politically charged?
[FYI, did anyone else out there know that legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby created the actual storyboards for the fake film “Argo” to boost the credibility of the fake production for the CIA? I certainly didn’t.]