Near the end of the film, for about 15 minutes I held my face in tension and almost crushed it. Before that I just held my seat. Argo is pure cinema, it is pure craft. It creates suspense by cutting film in the most precise manner. I don't think I've let out a gleeful applause out of sheer relief for a movie in a long time. Maybe never. This is cinematic escapism at its best.
Argo begins with a prologue, which is told through storyboards. We get the first signal that this upcoming history lesson is going to be extremely interesting. Then we are thrust straight into the Iranian hostage situation. 52 Americans holed up in the American embassy. 6 escape and hide out in a house. The CIA has to come up with an idea soon. The rest of the film is about the best bad idea they came up with.
Movies come to the rescue. They make a fake movie, called Argo, to save real lives. Tony Mendez, the exfiltration specialist goes to Iran to get them out. He gets this idea while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes (1973). The plan is to pretend they are a movie crew scouting for an exotic Middle-eastern location. Why? Well, why not? Everybody loves the movies. It doesn't claim to exhibit what it is to make a movie but it points out how movies are perceived, specifically how people working in the movies are perceived. If last year's The Artist was an actor's delight, this one is for the makers. Better still, it is mainly for the audience, since there is a nail-biting story at play.
The star of the show is Ben Affleck. He showed promise with his previous directorial efforts (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) but it is with Argo that he excels. Giving nods to Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula more than once, Affleck's filmmaking never strikes a false note. Lumet was known for his precision, his films were made the best way those stories could be filmed, without letting his idiosyncrasies get in the way.
There is a Hollywood satire beneath the near-perfect thriller. My favorite character is Lester Siegel, the Hollywood movie producer, played by Alan Arkin. He wishes his fake movie to be a fake hit. I love this guy. He is the only fictitious character here and he along with John Chambers (John Goodman), get the best lines. There are in-jokes â€œYou're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.â€ â€œ You want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot and do nothing? You'll fit right in!â€ There are conversations like â€œThe saying goes what starts in farce, ends in tragedy. No it's the other way round. Who said that exactly? Marx. Groucho said that?â€ Absolutely hilarious.
Not to forget the future popular movie quote â€œArgo fuck yourselfâ€ which I was surprised to learn wasn't invented by the writers. This was also factual. Let me not spoil these jokes for you further. If there is anything you must watch this year it is CIA's Jason retrieving the Golden Fleece. Tony Mendez on his mission illogical. The truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Of course, there is a downside. Several of them. The negation of the Canadian contribution. The villain imputation to the Iranians. The characters are given the back seat as the thriller aspects take the wheel. There is one that sticks out like a ugly scratch: the film is essentially a bunch of Americans running away from Muslims. In these troubled times, I can hardly call prejudice and jingoism something we need, yet all of this did happen. The fact that it's a true story makes it more appealing than as a standalone film. But then you find out that most of the happenings of the final half hour (the best part of the film) didn't even take place in reality. Although, these becomes less bothersome with a second watch, they cannot be ignored. For these reasons alone, I cannot champion this film.
This is a definite Best Picture nominee, it could even win. It is centered on politics with movies saving the day, but most importantly it is a crowd-pleaser. It is what all of us go to the movies for - escapism. Movie magic spurts out from all directions while we watch under an arresting spell. As filmmaking craft goes, it is flawless.
Can someone make the real Argo now? I'd love to see that film.