Review by Gene
The Academy Awards have developed a bit of a reputation for themselves of nominating movies for the Oscar for Best Picture which the general public either missed entirely, or didn’t find it the gem of a production that the Academy did. This year that was not the case. Argo took the Oscar amongst a number of films that were hits at the box office, with the exception of Beasts of the Southern Wild. I did not catch Argo in the theater, though now having seen it I wish I had. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, Argo tells the true story of the escape of 6 Americans from Iran in 1980. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who specializes in exfiltration from hostile territory. Ben’s portrayal of Tony Mendez, while seemingly bland, emotionless and expressionless, is right on the money once you see interviews with the real man. And really, thinking back, his demeanor is perfectly fitting of a CIA agent. Oh, and he’s rockin’ a beard. I would highly recommend checking out the extra features with interviews of the actual people if you purchase or rent this movie.
The stage is set in opening this movie with a good bit of background information regarding Iran’s history leading up to this event, particularly focusing on the U.S.’s meddling with their leaders and installing their own pro-western culture leader called The Shah. Iranian revolutionaries overthrow The Shah and in late 1979 they invade the U.S. Embassy and take many people hostage, but not before 6 can escape and obtain asylum at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence. The actors playing the 6 escaped Americans feed off each other terrifically. There are a handful of moments they are discussing or arguing over what to do next, how to stay safe, whether to go or stay. In each instance the actors appear genuinely troubled at the circumstances and at their wit’s end for how to come out of this alive. Excellent performances from each of them.
Upon learning that the 6 Americans escaped, the decision is made to leave them where they are. No immediate rescue or withdrawal would be attempted. They were in the hands and hospitality of our neighbors to the north. It isn’t until ten weeks later that a plan is devised to get them out. And after ten weeks, the plan on the table was… bicycles. I certainly hope this wasn’t a true aspect of the story. I’d hate to think that after ten weeks the best plan devised was to give them some bicycles, point in a direction, and tell them to ride like the wind. Tony is in attendance at the meeting discussing this plan, and what began for him as being a “yes” man became a sense of obligation to come up with a plan to at least give these people a chance. He couldn’t sit there and allow this idea to get legs when he knew it was doomed. His name is on the line, sure. They wanted his blind approval. But on the line too were the lives of his fellow Americans.
From here we begin to get a deeper look at Tony. Throughout the film, in down moments, Tony is shown reflecting on his family, his son in particular. He calls him up to watch a movie together and talk about his day. His son, and the family he yearns for, are his anchor to the simple life. The life without the secrets, lies and deception he is burdened with each and every day. Agur wrote in Proverbs, “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion.” (Prov. 30:8) The truthful and simple life is something I think we all desire in our hearts. Funny how some desires of our heart; the desire to be well-known or important or wealthy, can so drastically oppose other desires of our hearts.
An idea is sparked in Tony’s mind to exfiltrate the 6 Americans. An idea that is described as the “best bad idea we have, by far.” Helping Tony with this plan are Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, played by John Goodwin, and producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin. These two are saddled with the lighthearted moments of the film. For a movie dealing with such a serious event, the comic relief is definitely satisfactory and never goes so far as to make you forget the seriousness of the mission at hand. That is a testament to Goodwin and Arkin’s performances. Arkin in particular has some of the best lines in the film as he excels in his role of the “too old to care” producer. The first meeting between Tony, Chambers and Siegel reminded me of the introductory meeting of the heisters in Ocean’s 11. Impossible job… yeah, but that’s what we’re gonna do. The planning and staging for Tony’s idea is intermixed with real footage of news reports. This was a nice touch and does well to solidify the movie in its appropriate time in history.
Tony makes the trip to Iran to initiate his plan and the suspense and intensity in the film pickup a bit. Nearly every interaction from this point on is heavy and meaningful to the survival of the escapees. The Americans argue amongst themselves as to whether to trust Tony. An Iranian official interrogates the Canadian Ambassador’s housekeeper. Panic ensues within the CIA. And you sit there waiting, waiting… waiting for Studio 6 to pickup the phone! All of this grabs you in and gives you real concern for the success of the mission, while knowing full well it all ends just fine for Tony and the 6 Americans. It makes me curious how much of these suspenseful moments actually went down and how many are designed for the big-screen.
Despite the plot being centered around the safety and escape of the 6 Americans, the film also keeps its focus on the person and character of Tony Mendez. At one point in his hotel in Iran, Tony removes his wedding ring before going to bed and sets it next to a picture of his son. The connection between the two, his marriage and his son, is something he seems to be contemplating even in the midst of these circumstances he was in. Is my marriage going to fail, is my son worth trying harder for, can I have one without the other. During another down moment while sharing a bite to eat with Les, Tony asks about Les’ kids and explains how his son is with his mother in Virginia while he and his wife take time apart. Tony says, “he needs to be where he is”. Les replies bluntly, “kids need their mother”. Tony nods in agreement and stares off into the distance. You get the feeling that he knows that’s true, kids do need their mother, but he also knows that is incomplete. His son needs him too. He needs him for more than a phone call at night to chit-chat about his day and watch a movie. Thinking of this helps me put in perspective the things my son needs from me as his father. He needs me to teach him dignity and bravery. To instill in him the importance of respect and courtesy in a way that only a father can. To show him that kindness is not weakness, humility is above boasting, and always be ready to swing on a 2-0 count. Sons need their mothers, sure, but sons need their fathers too, and Tony was shown as struggling with that balance in short bits throughout this film.
The ending to this movie is just right. We aren’t left with a simple plane departure escape and fade to black. There is a lot said about the necessary deception on the part of the CIA in order to protect the hostages still being held in Iran. The deception on the part of the Canadians, taking credit for the escape, which also risked their own reputation in the eyes of Iranians. But my favorite part is Tony’s final scene. He drives home, walks to the front door where he is greeted by his wife. They embrace like I’m sure they hadn’t done in a while, both realizing the love they still share for one another. Finally, our CIA agent specializing in hostile exfiltration lies in bed with his son, Star Wars action figures surrounding them both on bedposts and bookshelves. Oh the irony. He has achieved a great feet, he has saved lives, but his own son will not and cannot know about it. He seems uneasy or conflicted with this thought, yet content with the reality of being with his family and his son.
My Rating: 4/5
I don’t have a lot to pick on this movie about. My main criticism might be that the period between the first 15 minutes and the last 20 minutes is a little dull and slow-moving. Fortunately this is where Goodwin and Arkin’s contributions were placed. This might be the least animated, or most reserved you’ll ever see Ben Affleck. But I think the character called for that. It isn’t surprising that this won the Best Picture award. It is a very pro-Hollywood movie and somewhat of a U.S.-basher, though apparently not entirely unwarranted. While it contains some mild cursing and a handful of GD’s, this movie kept my attention even in the more down moments, while still managing to keep me in suspense on a number of occasions despite already knowing the outcome. Not the best Oscar-winner you’ll ever watch. Probably not even the best of this century thus far. But entertaining none-the-less.
Chambers: “You wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.”
Max Klein: “I took this meeting, out of respect, because I wanted to say no to your face” Les: “Thank you, very respectful”
Jack O’Donnell: “This is the best bad idea we have sir. By far.”
Les: “John Wayne is in the ground six months, this is what’s left of America.”
Joe Stafford: “You really think your little story is going to make a difference with a gun to our heads?” Tony: “I think my story is the only thing between you and a gun to your head.”
Jack O’Donnell: “If we wanted applause we woulda joined the circus.”