One sentence synopsis: A CIA exfiltration expert creates a fake Hollywood movie in order to rescue American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Things Havoc liked: Be honest with me. Back in the early 2000s, when you had just finished seeing one of the lengthy series of disastrously terrible Ben Affleck movies that came out around then, movies like Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, or Gigli, did you ever imagine that some ten years later, you would find yourself looking forward to the newest film from critically acclaimed director Ben Affleck? I sure as hell didn't, and yet following films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town, there's simply no two ways about it. Affleck knows what he's doing behind the camera, and directing himself, he has put together a hell of a movie here.
Argo is a story so strange I would not have believed it if my own research had not backed it up. It concerns a fake CIA-financed science fiction movie that was thrown together so as to provide a cover for smuggling a handful of American diplomats out of the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran. Yet strange as the story is, the movie about it is very down-to-earth. Every step in the process, from the initial escape to the planning, preparation, and execution is dealt with precisely and efficiently, never rushing, but also never slowing down for forced character moments, relying on the characters themselves to come through via the plot. The best of a very strong cast is Alan Alda, an actor whose appeal I've never quite "gotten", who here plays Lester Siegel, a Hollywood film producer approached by the CIA to provide cover for the fake movie. Alda's only in the film for about half an hour, but is absolutely note-perfect as a man who has played around in Hollywood long enough to know exactly how and when to bullshit people and how and when to threaten and bluster to get what he wants. Yet unlike a lot of retrospective "Hollywood on Hollywood" movies (such as Hollywoodland), the film never gets caught up in itself, relegating the Hollywood material to its proper place in the overall plot.
The film is a visible throwback to the 70s, not only in decor, hairstyles (those mustaches), but also in the overall structure. With nearly no action to speak of, the focus is on deliberation and procedure, an intentional throwback to classic spy thrillers like Day of the Jackal or The Spy who Came in from the Cold. The fact that we know how the mission turned out (at least if we've done any cursory research on the film) does not stop it from being extremely tense, particularly in a heavily atmospheric sequence in a crowded souk where a shopkeeper begins screaming at our heroes in untranslated Farsi over an issue nobody, including the audience, is able to even understand. The cinematography, meanwhile, is superb, showcasing Tehran as a normal, functioning city that has been at least partly taken over by madmen. The normal, everyday functioning elements of the city are juxtaposed with the rampaging 'students' who are apparently free to kill whoever they want, conscript small children for slave labor, and, at will, disrupt entire sections of the city's infrastructure. And yet none of these things feel artificial or ring false. This was, we believe, what it was to live in Tehran in 1979. And it was not an experience to recommend.
Things Havoc disliked: The Iran Hostage crisis is still a contentious issue, to say the least, and the film does try to address in as balanced a manner as it can. Unfortunately, that balanced treatment amounts to "following thirty years of unrelieved evil, the Americans finally got what was coming to them."
Am I exaggerating? Yes, massively. But the problem with trying to condense a massively complicated political situation down into 45 seconds of title crawl is that someone is invariably going to wind up looking like a cartoonish villain, and given who and what made this film, one can guess just who that person is. It's a shame that the film does this, because this is one of the only films I can recall in which the CIA are actually portrayed as good guys doing good things. And yet lest this sound like a blip at the beginning of the movie, the film re-enforces the matter with not one but several scenes in which US diplomatic agents in hiding for their very lives, their friends and colleagues being beaten and tortured just down the road for months on end, discuss with one another how the Iranian revolution and its aftermath are the just deserts of the terrible US foreign policy they previously were responsible for enacting. While it's certainly true that there's precious little for the US to brag about in the history of its relations with Iran from circa 1950 onwards, I would submit that this is not a point likely to present itself as reasonable to people driving through streets filled with the hanged bodies of secularists while armed maniacs pursue them with assault rifles. It reads, at least to me, as a failed attempt to contextualize the events of the movie by trying not to portray the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as "all that bad", despite the visibly bad things they are attempting to do to our heroes. Again, perhaps it's just me reading this into the film, but most film critics have been praising this movie for its "even-handed" approach to the Iran Crisis. I would submit to such people that "even-handed" is not defined as blaming everything on the Americans, but that's generally not a position likely to find backers in some portions of Hollywood.
Final thoughts: But while I may be obsessive about these obscure historico-political interpretations, I'm not so far gone to fail to recognize a good film when I see it. Argo is an excellent spy thriller, well-shot and acted, and with the additional virtue of somehow, despite its ludicrousness, being absolutely true. Oscar buzz (though I consider the possibility a long shot) has already begun circling around the movie, a clear signal to me that we are finally entering into Oscar season, the last of the three major "phases" that the film calendar recognizes. Given the worse-than-usual Doldrums and the utterly wasted Blockbuster season that we experienced this year (Avengers and Batman notwithstanding), I am hopeful that Argo represents the beginning of a much better stretch of film for the next few months.
Final Score: 7.5/10