Thursday, November 08, 2012


In Greek mythology, Argo was the ship that Jason sailed on in search of the Golden Fleece. Metaphorically, that prize usually represents legitimacy or economic reward. In Ben Affleck's movie of the same name, Argo represents freedom.

Ironically, and unintentionally, I saw the movie on November 4th, the 23rd anniversary of the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

From Wikipedia:

"Militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 in retaliation for sheltering the recently deposed Shah. More than 50 of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, but six escaped and hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. With the escapees' situation kept secret, the US State Department begins to explore options for "exfiltrating" them from Iran. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist brought in for consultation, criticizes the proposals. He too is at a loss for an alternative until inspired at home by watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV with his son: he plans to create a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting "exotic" locations in Iran for a similar sci-fi film ..."

I remember the days of the Hostage Crisis. The speed in which events moved in an age of a few TV networks and some newspapers is distinctly different than what they would be in today's constantly changing, instant update, Twitter world. Affleck in his direction and his setting the scene does a good job of focusing on those differences. It's obvious that a mission like theirs, that relied on the limits of data acquisition, could probably not be carried out today. I find it hard to imagine that 6 Americans could successfully hide out for 79 days and then escape in plain sight.

Argo is the telling of the Canadian Caper, as it was called at the time, but with much more of a focus on the CIA involvement. This involvement wasn't even admitted until the declassification of it in 1997. Canada was largely, and deservedly, given most of the credit at the time. They were risking much by harboring the Americans. Despite the way in which Canadians are portrayed in American popular culture, especially by conservatives, their willingness to do what is difficult and what is right should not be questioned.

One of the major reasons why this movie works is because the seriousness of the subject matter is leavened by irony and gallows's humor, usually by John Goodman, portraying a special effects man, and Alan Arkin, a producer. You would not think that levity would work here but, as is often the case, sometimes when things are particularly dire or hopeless, humor gives focus and hope.

The recurring refrain by the fake movie crew is "Argo fuck yourself", to great comic effect.

It's nice to see that Ben Affleck has transitioned from a mediocre, if lucrative, leading role acting career to a directing and character actor one. As I've written before, his previous work in The Town and Gone, Baby, Gone show that this isn't just some vanity project or passing fad. He's serious about making gritty and real dramas.

There are several scenes that are fictionalized so as to add drama, most notably the chase scene at the airport at the end. In addition, the path that led them to stay at the Canadian ambassador is not quite as focused as the film would lead you to believe. Canada was not the only embassy that aided them, with New Zealand, Sweden and England playing large parts. But that aid is diminished in the movie so as to accentuate the isolation of the group of Americans.

The strength of Affleck in Argo is in his direction, not his acting. And I'm not diminishing his acting in the movie as he plays Mendez appropriately. But, rather a showy acting performance in this role is not called for. He's playing a CIA agent who has to largely not call attention to himself. And, functionally, he's playing the straight man to Goodman and Arkin. Both of their roles as Hollywood movie types in the 70's are showy by the very nature of the period.

I highly recommend the movie as both pure entertainment and as a historical perspective on a time in our not so distant past. For those that lived through the times, we understand the tensions. But for those younger, Argo gives some insight to the nature of our continuing philosophical struggle with Iran. Grade: A-


wunelle said...

I'm looking forward to this still. Haven't been in a theater for quite a while lately. I think I share your general enthusiasm for Ben Affleck's directing, so this should be fun.

dbackdad said...

I plan on seeing Skyfall and probably Flight this weekend. There's quite a bit of stuff coming up that I'd like to see.