100 Film Favorites – #91: Argo
(Ben Affleck, 2012)
This is probably going to be a short entry. Then again, I’ve thought that several times before, and yet all the posts thus far have turned out pretty long.
Argo is one of the most recent films on this list, and regardless of any artistic merit (which it does have a lot of), I love this film primarily because it tells the true story of a moment in U.S. history when the CIA thought, “American citizens are in peril! This looks like a job for…B-MOVIE PRODUCERS!” Knowing that this was the premise going in, I already knew I was going to like this movie. But from the instant I saw that the Alan Arkin producer character had a SSSSSSS poster on the wall of his office (and Tony Mendez’s son had a Valley of Gwangi poster in his bedroom), I was rooting for Argo for Best Picture.
<-Both highly recommended->
For any who may not know, Argo dramatizes the “Canadian Caper,” a covert operation carried out by the CIA during the ongoing Iran hostage crisis in 1979. To rescue American diplomats who escaped the besieged embassy but are still trapped in Iran, lying low at the Canadian ambassador’s house, CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) proposes assigning the diplomats cover identities as members of a Canadian film crew working on pre-production for a science-fiction film called Argo. The “crew,” upon completing their “location scout,” will then depart Iran, with the new, vehemently anti-American regime hopefully none the wiser regarding their true identities.
The film makes masterful use of tension. From the moment they commit to the Argo scheme, Mendez and the trapped diplomats are constantly walking the razor’s edge, and seem like they could be caught at any time.
The filmmakers also do a remarkable job of recreating key scenes of turmoil in late-70s Iran in the wake of revolution. During the end credits, stills from the film are shown alongside photos of actual historical events, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish which are which. The same holds true for the actors: The casting, costumes and makeup are done so skillfully that the actors very closely resemble the actual people they portray, terrible 70s hair and all.
But what really made this film for me were the roles of Alan Arkin and John Goodman as a low-end Hollywood producer and a monster-movie makeup artist, respectively. The two teach Mendez the ins-and-outs of Hollywood, “acting like a big shot without actually doing anything,” as well as how to make his cover story believable (by holding read-through galas for the press, for instance). The two characters add a lot of humor to the film, but also allow the viewer a better understanding of the Hollywood studio system and the process of making a movie, just as the interactions between Mendez and his superior spy-chief-boss-guy, played by Bryan Cranston, provide insight into the working of the CIA.
I’ve heard some people gripe about Argo winning this year’s Best Picture Oscar. While I admit I didn’t see every film which was nominated, I absolutely think the film deserved the award. It’s a tense caper film with a liberal dose of humor. It shines light on an interesting, lesser-known event in the history of espionage, and does a great job of recreating in vivid detail the world of a not-too-distant past (even if the narrative of the film may not be 100% historically accurate). Bryan Cranston even gets to yell at some people near the end. Any way you look at it, the film’s a winner.
But maybe you still don’t think it was that great, and another film should have won Best Picture. If so, I have one thing to say to you:
“Argo fuck yourself.”
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.