Zach Haines ’14
With the Oscars drawing closer, I’m sure that everyone is desperately rushing to see the nominated films. Just before the school year started up again, an equally Oscar-obsessed friend and I spent an intense seven hours at the movies catching up on all this year’s Academy-acclaimed cinema. Even after one of the most rigorous nights of movie-watching I’ve ever experience (Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Darky Thirty, followed by Ben Affleck’s Argo, followed by Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), I could not pass up the opportunity so see this remarkably clever, charming, informative, and occasionally intense picture – which is nominated in the rather lofty categories of Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (for writer Chris Terrio), and Best Supporting Actor (for Alan Arkin) – for a second time this weekend.
Now, before you go into the film totally blind, as I did the first time around, it might be helpful to know that the story behind Argo is, as incredible as it may seem, entirely true. The screenplay itself is based on Master of Diguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (2000), the memoir by former CIA officer Tony Mendez (portrayed in the film by Affleck). Mendez is the mastermind behind what is now referred to as the “Canadian Caper,” the rescue mission in which six US Embassy workers were safely transported out of Tehran, Iran during the midst of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. These six diplomats had escaped the from the American consulate, which was overrun by a militant pro-Ayatollah mob on November 4, 1979, and took refuge in the homes of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) and Canadian immigrations officer John Sheardown, where they remained in hiding for 79 days.
Both the Canadian government and the CIA enlisted Mendez’s help in executing the covert exfiltration of the six hostages. His plan involved the complete fabrication of multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster called Argo, a grand sci-fi affair set on an exotic desert planet with a Middle Eastern vibe. Each diplomat was to be smuggled out of Iran disguised as part of Argo’s film crew: screenwriter, location manager, director, producer, etc. Mendez, posing as a producer, orchestrated press conferences and set up a Hollywood office (“Studio Six,” named after the six hostages) with the help of Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman). The film is augmented by some stellar performances from the previously mentioned Alan Arkin, who plays Lester Siegel, a fictitious (yet, in my opinion, a welcome and essential addition) Hollywood director and Mendez’s right-hand man in creating the façade of Argo, and Brian Cranston as Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell, who, shockingly and regrettably, has escaped recognition by the Academy this year.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Argo is my pick for best picture this year, and here’s why: this film elucidates a moment in American history that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public while managing to remain intelligible and accessible for those moviegoers who are not well-versed in the inner-workings of Central Intelligence. Argo does not stray in its fidelity from the events of history, though Affleck has managed to tweak them in a way that brilliantly suits the cinema. Viewers are treated not only to riveting political drama, but emotional intrigue, plenty of suspense, a healthy dose of comic relief supplied by Goodman and Arkin, and a cast of solidly-acted characters from
I have heard only two real complaints about Argo thus far: the first being that the film has sensationalizes “one of the most cataclysmic episodes in U.S. foreign affairs in the last 50 years” (see Slate Magazines rather unfavorable review for this quotation in context), the second being that the film’s portrayal of Iranians is one-sided and demonizing. With regards to the first complaint, I say that its Hollywood, and not every film can or will forgo charm in the way Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty did so beautifully; but at the end of the day, since no egregious edits were made, I am inclined to make no objections. With regards to second complaint, I can honestly say that never once did it occur to me that Argo was exploiting the Iranian people in order to create a one-dimensional movie villain. What I will say is that, when you’ve chosen to tell a story, sometimes you have to decide on one point-of-view and stick to it. Some people want to hear Argo told from an Iranian perspective; others want to hear more about the other 52 diplomats who were held actually held hostage in Iran for over a year. Formally, it just wouldn’t work – their stories are not what the filmmakers of Argo have chosen to explore. Anyway, you can decide for yourself.
I urge anyone who hasn’t seen Argo yet to brave all weather conditions before the biggest most glamorous night in movies is upon us. No matter what opinion you adopt with regards to the treatment of the subject matter, it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to weigh in on one of this year’s most talked-about films.