Judge Gordon Sullivan once made a fake movie to escape Hollywood.
The movie was fake. The mission was real.
There's a story that Kevin Smith likes to tell about the shooting of Chasing Amy. In one of the more emotionally important moments between Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams, Affleck went off script. Smith, ever the stickler for his screenplay in those days, admonished the young actor to stay on page. Ben's reply was "That one was for my peeps." Smith originally seemed to get a kick out of telling this story because Affleck, for all his talent, didn't have peeps in 1997. This was pre-Good Will Hunting, when he was perhaps most famous for playing the jerk in a number of films like Dazed and Confused. Now, of course, Smith likes to tell the story because against all odds Affleck does have peeps. He's weathered being in flops (Pearl Harbor, Gigli), two different Bennifer relationships, and snuck up on cinemagoers as a director with two underappreciated crime flicks, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Neither film set the box office afire, so it seemed like Affleck had something to prove with his third directorial outing, Argo. Though I'm sure haters are still gonna hate, Argo (Blu-ray) demonstrates handily that Affleck has a near-total command of cinema both in front of and behind the camera.
Facts of the Case
In 1979, Iranian forces captured the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The so-called Iran Hostage Crisis lasted from November 1979 until January 1981, with fifty-two American held for 444 days. It was a big deal: some think it cost Carter the election, it put America into an odd position with Saddam Hussein, and it eventually blew up into the Iran-Contra affair. That's the public face of the hostage crisis. Behind the scenes, six embassy employees escape when the buildings were overrun. They were sheltered by a number of sympathetic government figures before winding up in the house of a Canadian official (played here by Victor Garber, The Town). Still, they're stuck there, and it's far from safe. The U.S. government wants to exfiltrate them, and it brings in CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out. His plan is to fly into Tehran, meet up with the six Americans, and then pretend to be a Canadian film crew so they can all fly out together. To do that, he needs a film for them to be making, so he enlists the aid of makeup effects guru John Chambers (John Goodman, Red State) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). It was a fake movie, but the danger to Mendez and his American charges is all too real.
On paper, Argo is an easy film to hate. It's won a number of big awards in what feels like a round of Hollywood backslapping itself over its awesome coup of getting one over on the Iranians thirty years ago. However, once it's playing, Argo overcomes all those issues with both style and substance.
The film opens with a brief history of Iran's associations with American leading up to the hostage crisis (including our involvement in overthrowing one of their governments). Once that's established, it kicks into high gear and stays there for the rest of the running time. Affleck's previous two films were similarly thriller/drama hybrids, but they were set in contemporary America. Argo puts him back a couple of decades, and he takes up the challenge of returning to the 1970s, when actors' directors (think Sidney Lumet) would make big thrillers for Hollywood that didn't shy away from being thrilling and well-acted.
The key to Argo is its sense of professionalism. Unlike a film such as Zero Dark Thirty, Argo shows us not just a lone, obsessive genius but how a team of equally impressive people get a difficult, dangerous job done. The film's most successful moments aren't the nail-biting scenes of "Will they get caught?" but the quiet scenes of Mendez working with Chambers and Siegel to make the impossible happen. Though the film comes down as a thriller in the end, its heart is in telling the story of the men who made the rescue happen.
Of course the hostages are always the other side of the coin in these situations, and the team of six Americans are another tightly knit unit. Though they're stressed and unsure of what to do, their characters have a logical cohesion that fits their situation as dangerous stowaways in a ship that seems to be on fire. These actors have the tougher job, to remain scared and serious in a film that's trying in many ways to be light and glitzy (at least in its Hollywood sections). They don't get the snappy dialogue or the cool costumes, but they do get some of the film's tenser moments.
The film is only helped by this excellent Argo (Blu-ray) release. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is dark and gritty, just as the film appeared in theaters. Grain is highlighted in this transfer, but well-handled. Many of the colors skew towards blues and browns, but again they're handled well. No significant digital artefacts crop up either. Though it's not a stunning hi-def presentation for demoing a system, Argo (Blu-ray) is faithful to the way Affleck and his cinematographer conceived the film. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly good. It handles the film's dialogue with clarity from the center channel. The surrounds get a lot of use during the numerous crowd scenes, and they even establish atmosphere in the CIA's headquarters (where the film was allowed to shoot because Mendez is so well-regarded).
Extras start with a Picture-in-Picture commentary featuring a number of the actual people involved in the hostage crisis (including Mendez himself). It's a nice counterbalance to the historically iffy film, which boils down some facts in the name of narrative momentum. The film gets the deluxe treatment in a commentary featuring Affleck and writer Chris Terrio. They discuss all the major highlights, from the film's visual style to its departures from history. Three featurettes look at a number of issues surrounding the film, including more info from people who were there, and a brief overview of Hollywood's involvement with the CIA. Finally, there's a TV documentary on the whole affair from 2005. Outside the disc there's a DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy of the film available with this release as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everything about Argo is perfect. The film's biggest problem is its central character. Ben Affleck is a great actor, but his performance here is a bit forgettable. Though he commits to the facial hair and he's not a pale guy, he doesn't make much of a Mendez. It leaves me wondering if there were no more appropriate actors out there to take the role, especially since Mendez is a legend in the intelligence field. There also isn't much time to set up his character, who has a wife he's on the rocks with and a son. A few stabs at keeping his family problems as a through line feel halfhearted and Affleck would be forgiven for letting them drop.
I really enjoyed Argo, but it's popcorn filmmaking. There are no great lessons to be learned from it about foreign policy or how people behave under pressure. That's okay; I love that it's a popcorn film. However, those lured to the film by all the awards hype might find themselves disappointed with the well-oiled machine that is Argo.
Argo is a solidly built, well-acted thriller that show Affleck has what it takes to be a director and not just a dabbling actor. It's a film that's worth watching for fans of the actors, international thrillers, or well-done filmmaking. That Argo (Blu-ray) is so excellent makes a recommendation even easier.
The film may have been fake, but the pleasure watching it unfold is real. Not
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
Review content copyright © 2013 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.