Argo Is Serious Oscar Bait

I can’t even begin to tell you how many people were asking me whether or not I had seen Argo (and if I’d be reviewing it). This movie is a hot topic right now. Then again, there’s nothing really of this movie’s caliber out in theaters right now for people to talk about. Oh, Paranormal Activity 4, you say? How interesting! I’m sure they’ve never done anything like it before! How about you shut up so I can talk about a really, really good movie instead of your shitty horror film?

For those of you excited for the Golden Globes, the SAGS, and the Academy Awards, you should definitely keep your eye on Argo. It’s been gaining some serious following in Hollywood, and all of the major reviewers and presses have been saying that Ben Affleck will be up for Best Director (and possibly Best Actor) this year, and Argo will most likely be considered for Best Picture. Though there will be several fantastic Oscar-worthy films this year, I can tell you that, having now seen Argo, I completely agree with all of the buzz it’s been getting. So let’s dive in deeper, shall we?

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the plot: “Based on true events, Argo chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran Hostage Crisis—the truth of which was unknown by the public for decades. On November 4, 1979, as the Iranian revolution reaches its boiling point, militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. But in the midst of the chaos, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are found out and likely killed, a CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a risky plan to get them safely out of the country. A plan so incredible, it could only happen in the movies.”

The acting in this movie was phenomenal from all of the characters—main, secondary, and extra. I really liked how the big name actors (Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Victor Garber) were given the CIA, government, and Hollywood roles while the six American refugees were played by relatively unknown actors, who looked almost identical to the actual American refugees from the real crisis. That was an excellent casting decision on somebody’s part. I doubt the movie would’ve felt as true to the real story if they had chosen big name actors to play the refugees.

Also, another acting bit worth mentioning was the relationship dynamic between two of the movie’s duos—producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) and “exfiltrator” Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). Playing Hollywood big-wigs, Arkin and Goodman got the best comedic lines and witty banter of the film (My personal favorite was Arkin’s “Argo f*** yourself”), but there was also a kind of camaraderie between them that blossomed out of their characters’ shared experience of slowly becoming obsolete in Hollywood. 

On the other hand, Cranston and Affleck had the more serious dynamic to pull off with their boss and right-hand man roles, though they portrayed those roles with a sense of respect and trust, as if the characters had established a solid friendship during their years of working together at the CIA.

Tension was the essense of this movie, as you can probably imagine just from the film’s trailer. I have never felt so anxious during a movie. In fact, I was sitting on the edge of my seat and holding my breath during this film’s climax at the airport, where Tony and the six Americans were trying to board a plane out of Iran with each checkpoint causing them some sort of problem (whether it be plane ticket reservations getting re-approved by the American government in time for them to make the flight or the Hollywood producers answering the phone in time to give Tony’s fake Argo story some credibility to get passed the revolutionary guards). When you are so engrossed in the film’s tension that you can’t separate yourself from it, that’s when you know it was directed well.

Ben Affleck, his screenwriters, his creative director(s), and film editor(s) were obviously all working from one mindset with Argo‘s symbolism because there was serious attention to detail and tact to the presentation of imagery throughout the film. The burning American flag, the anti-Iranian news footage (which I believe was actually from 1979 and 1980 broadcasts), the pictures of the Ayatollah carried by the rioting mob, the sexualized glamour of Hollywood, the peaceful mosque in Istanbul, the women arriving in Iran’s airport without hijabs next to the women departing from Iran in hijabs, the American flag waving behind Tony as he returned home to his wife and son—these are just a few of the many symbolic images in the movie.

You can’t say these things weren’t done on purpose to capture the tension and views of that moment in time. Not to mention, some of these images were recreations of actual images from the Iran Hostage Crisis (which we saw paralleled in the closing credits). I will say this though—while the imagery is extremely powerful in conjunction with this movie’s plot, it also could further hate for the Middle East

There is a lot of anti-Middle East imagery in the movie juxtaposed with pro-U.S. imagery, of which I am personally aware is only to reflect the time and culture of that particular moment in our history; however, I’m not sure if others would see it that way. If you knew nothing of Iran, than you could easily assume just from this movie that all Iranians constantly riot in the streets and kill innocent people just for being Americans. I’m not saying that this isn’t true of some in Iran today, but it’s certainly not true of everyone in Iran. Fortunately, I’m sure that most people, who are interested in movies like this one, are more educated than your Paranormal Activity 4 audience (Yes, I have a beef with Paranormal Activity 4). I’m also sure that I could spark debates about whether or not this movie is current patriotic and nationalist propaganda for the U.S., but I’ll just leave that one be.

Did I mention this movie pokes fun at Hollywood? Yeah. And boy does Argo poke fun at Hollywood. Besides the obvious jokes made by Alan Arkin and John Goodman about Sci-Fi actors not being able to act, producers acting like big-shots without actually doing anything, how the press is dumb enough to sell a movie without having seen the movie, etc., there’s all of the movie posters with crappy film titles, the dilapidated Hollywood sign, and the mocking of Star Wars knock-offs. What I find even funnier is that the movie Argo (not the fake one in the movie) is being endorsed by Hollywood as an Oscar-worthy movie…AND THE MOVIE MAKES FUN OF HOLLYWOOD. I mean, shit, that’s the best kind of irony you can get.

Also, there were a few factual goofs that stood out. Here were the two that I noticed. At one point, when Tony is in an office, trying to get a permit for the fake filming of Argo in Iran, he says “Salaam” (which I believe means “Hello” in Farsi) as he’s leaving the office. And then there was the fact that the movie’s plot took place during 1979-1980 and showed a dilapidated Hollywood sign, even though the Hollywood sign was actually renovated in 1978, so it technically wouldn’t have been dilapidated during that time period. Did anybody else notice some goofs like these?

Overall, Argo is breathtaking (and I mean that literally because it’s that tense at times). I feel like Ben Affleck did a fantastic job not only incorporating the actual events and minute details into the movie’s direction but also in establishing well-placed symbolism and a looming sense of tension. Despite the minor mishaps of factual errors and possible anti-Middle East propaganda, Argo was powerful, moving, and certainly a story to remember. The film’s acting was magnificent from all of the roles down to the extras, carried extremely well by the powerhouse big names as well as the relatively unknown actors playing the six American refugees. If Argo doesn’t receive any awards this year, I will be sorely disappointed.

Argo: A+ 

One thought on “Argo Is Serious Oscar Bait

  1. I saw Argo last week, and enjoyed it. I used to go to Tehran on business in the early 90s and wondered how Hollywood would portray the place. It didn’t look too off, considering it was filmed in Turkey, though I have an abiding memory of absolutely crazy driving standards and conditions that you didn’t get a sense of in the movie. I’d never drive there.

    One shot of Ben Affleck in his hotel room matched my experience of my first stay in 1990 – a view of snow-covered mountains (though the digital matte painting looked a bit dodgy). Somewhere in my view was notorious Evin Prison, and a British prisoner called Roger Cooper was stuck in there at the time.

    The end part was, as many reviewers point out, rather over-dramatised with stuff that didn’t happen in fact. You can justify it, I guess, as being the sort of mad waking nightmare a person having to escape through an airport in such circumstances might imagine experiencing. I can see the attraction for the film-makers – without that kind of hyped-up visualisation, the film would outwardly look like a bunch of people filling in forms and checking in. Though a tense film could be made like that – a John le Carre style black and white Cold War movie creating tension from knowledge of the possible appalling consequences of discovery rather than action – this is not that kind of movie, especially with its actual Hollywood subplot of a baroque adventure StarWarsy film.

    SPOILERS

    A consequence is that the harum-scarum stuff at the airport doesn’t really add up – SPOILERS – in that the Iranian information systems seem speedy enough to get radicals right on the tails of our escapees at a crucial moment, but aren’t good enough to stop the plane leaving Iranian airspace a few hundred miles away even though there are radicals in the control tower.

    On a positive note, Affleck didn’t give himself lots of, or any, ludicrous dramatic action, and he let other actors dominate scenes while he watched, such as with Alan Arkin and his opponent in the script-rights meeting. In fact, almost all the time he was quiet and watchful and kind of hidden behind his hair and beard, which all befits the role of the guy he was playing.

    Some of the lesser-known actors, like the hostages, were great – conveying their tension, personality and relationships in small glances. They can’t have had much individual screentime to establish themselves but they did look like a bunch of individuals. And the angry bearded guy in the market was terrific, complaining about the photos.

    Some minor things looked odd. The script read-through in public with one actor in his full robot costume and no obvious way of seeing. The ticket confirmations coming through super-speedy while everyone was standing there looked very contrived – Fellowes/Downtonesque in its introduction of some new bit of peril and its resolution in a short time.

    END OF SPOILERS

    This next may seem nitpicky but it threw me a bit – in Istanbul, Affleck goes towards the exterior of the Blue Mosque, built 400 years ago and still in use as a mosque. But the interior he had his spy-meeting in was the Hagia Sophia, a massive church for more than 1000 years, a mosque for a further 500 years, and a secular museum for the last 80 years. (The document the British contact handed over to him all cloak and daggery was hardly a secret document, either, even in terms of the film – Affleck was later shown lifting a pile of them from an open counter at the airport). But why not show the Hagia Sophia exterior? It’s pretty impressive. That’s like heading in through the front door of The White House and cutting to looking at Lincoln on his memorial chair.

    Anyway. It would probably have been better if the West hadn’t deposed Mossadegh in 1953.

    I was in Iran at several Tehran Book Fairs, as regional manager for the international arm of Prentice Hall, the college publishers. I’m in the suit and red tie here in 1992; the guy sitting down is the McGraw-Hill chap, the other two Westerners represented a range of smaller publishers.

    I remember you had to get to the airport three hours in advance of the flight, so the officials could do their paperwork – not so much looking out for Western spies as checking on Iranian travellers. But one of our fellow publishers did have a difficult time leaving Iran – his (British) name happened to match that of someone whom the authorities wanted for currency smuggling in 1979, or something like that. He was refused exit and had to go back into town, get to a deputy minister of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (sponsors of the book fairs) and get a covering letter off him explaining who he was and what he was doing in Iran, much like the one Affleck got and handed over at emigration.

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