04 February 2013

First Impressions: Argo

In between an epic Super Bowl Weekend that pitted the Baltimore Murderers against the San Francisco Homophobes (unfortunately, only one of those names are ironic), I did manage to catch one of the hotter Oscar films and likely the eventual winner of the whole thing - Argo. Now, I may have to deliver some apologies to my dear friend Ben Affleck, who wasn't nearly as douchey in this film as I've been lead to believe previously. Well, as an actor he was still kind of a douche, even if he ultimately didn't really give that much to the role. As a director, though, he's certainly landed as one of our most competent out there.

And not even one "Ayatollah Ass-a-hollah" chant in the
whole picture
Argo is the story of a crazy, heretofore classified slice of American History that's really as much a part of Canadian and Iranian history as well. The singling out of American interests and downplaying the perspectives and roles of other nations is a political problem with Argo, but as a stand alone film, this thing is incredible. It tells the tale of a CIA operative who went undercover as a Canadian filmmaker to bust some escaped hostages out of Tehran circa 1980. Now, Iran in the early 80s wasn't nearly as glamourous as you may think. Despite the common Iranian stereotypes of bosomy half-naked models, rampant alcoholism, and far too much freedom, it turns out that the nation was actually quite conservative and hostile at the time. So naturally, it was kind of tough getting the handful of Americans out of the country.

Now, like I said, this is an excellent film even if it's not really historically accurate. The entire first two acts establish how high the stakes are, both on a personal level and on an international level. This interplay drives the film and each character battles between doing what they believe and what may help his or her country. Once the action really hits Tehran, the danger is at a constant high, with an incredible amount of tension and suspense throughout the remainder of the film, even though we know they come out OK. It's an incredible achievement. Of course, there really wasn't a hold-up in the Airport or a daring last second runway escape, and the mission was never cancelled at the last second from the High Command, potentially derailing the entire operation. That's alright, though. History doesn't always get it right - and by right, I mean it's not always as suspenseful and interesting as a movie could be. This movie takes history as a jumping off spot and improves upon it, capturing the feelings of danger and tension and places them upon the audience. It does exactly as a movie of its kind should do. The film captures emotion, not historical accuracy.

There is the tricky part of this film that indirectly insults or disparages some of our allies though. In the film the Americans who escape the embassy are turned down by the "Brits and Kiwis" and then just kind of play patty-cake in the Canadian Ambassador's crib until Ben Affleck comes and saves them. After the whole fiasco, the Americans disavow knowledge of the antic so that tensions would not escalate while Iran still held the other hostages. Thus, the Canadian Caper is born. The film seeks to honor the previously under-acknowledged American Tony Mendez's role in the Caper and downplays the Canadians. In reality though, both the Brits, Kiwis, and Canucks all helped out quite a bit. Despite this playful, thoroughly Americanized romp through history, the film retains the desperation, confinement, and outstretched odds that defined the situation.

This leisure suit brought to you by McDonald's
The film has perhaps become notable for having plenty of very authentic 1979-isms, even if the actual historical narrative is bunk. There's big glasses, big moustaches, sideburns, and whatever hairdo Affleck is rocking throughout the flick. It's a distinctly effective period film that features other elements of the time in meta-ways, such as opening with an era-appropriate "Big W" Warner Bros Logo. It all gives the flick a certain flavor that transports the audience back to the days of rampant inflation, wavering wishy-washy Carter policies, disco, and smoking. What an age to be alive.

The film does actually trade in its disco chops for a much better alternative - a rare, although recently less so, instance of Led Zeppelin music, "When the Levee Breaks." Apparently the catch was that he had to go in and change the shot so that when the needle drops it lands on the correct spot on IV that corresponds with where "Levee" starts playing on the Album. That's the best Zeppelin movie trivia you'll hear all day, folks. It's worth it - the song creates one of the best diegetic song moments of the year as the wayward Americans party for one last night of forced captivity while Ben and the Ambassador debate whether or not they will actually have the go ahead for the mission. It's a tough mix of emotions. Enter Zep.

Speaking of the Ambassador, he's played by veteran actor Victor Garber, who along with other veterans like Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman, form an incredible cast that tends to outshine Ben himself. Indeed, he tends to prove that he's a much better Director than he ever was as an actor. To pair this with the one Oscar he does have for writing Good Will Hunting (1997), and you wonder if he really wasted that decade he spent trying to act. Such is the curse of good-looking people in Hollywood. And don't think too hard about the fact that he's playing a Hispanic character, Tony Mendez himself doesn't really seem to identify with that race and also doesn't care.

I won't complain about Airport Security again. Taking
your shoes off is a pain but at least you don't
get shot for being an infidel.
An underrated element of Argo's brilliance is that it is essentially a deconstruction of the spy film more than Skyfall (2012) or even the Bourne series could pull off. It is one of the few films to treat spy work realistically. Ben Affleck doesn't just land in the country and approach a party in full tux right away. The film deals with the tension, terror, and minute details involved in sneaking in and out of a country that hates you and will kill you without a second thought if your cover was ever blown. There isn't any heroism here proven by gunplay or seduction. The heroism comes from a dude doing his job, getting others to buy in to both his cover and undercover identities, and leading people out of danger through avoiding violence, not instigating it. It's so subtle that it almost doesn't strike at first as a spy film. There are so much other things going on - heady political action, a slight critique of Hollywood from the inside, and not to mention Tony's own personal family problems that seemed slightly shoed-in.

Finally, there's some extra bits to wrap up here. The fictional film (that is never actually made), Argo, really appears sincerely atrocious and a completely blatant Star Wars (1977) rip-off. I mean, it has a straight-up Blue Chewbacca front and center, along with the droids, a sexy princess, a young hero, and a strange, racist Fu Manchu-looking villain. Even the Iranian Guards were like wtf is this? It's tough to believe that anyone would ever get pumped or excited for the sci-fi Argo, basically an Asylum-level mockbuster production akin to Transmorphers (2007) or Almighty Thor (2011). Luckily for every single person involved, the whole thing was just a cover. What's also notable is that the film featured a suddenly recurring robot, who has also been featured in music videos and the adult swim show, NTSF:SD:SUV::. That thing really gets around.

Lastly, this film will probably win Best Picture this year, indicated by its sweeps of nods at the Golden Globes, PGAs, DGAs, and SAGs. In a very unusual year, it could very well only pick up a statue in that category, possibly only scoring Editing or Adapted Screenplay as well. Keep in mind there was no Best Director nomination, which is really insane. Literally, outside of the 1930s, the only film to win Best Picture without a Directing nomination has been Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

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