Although it’s not too unusual for the winner of the Best Picture Oscar not to also pick up the Best Director gong, it’s very rare for the winner of the biggest prize not to even get a nomination for its helmer. However that’s what happened with Argo, marking the first time it’s occurred since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. (Incidentally it’s also now tied with Gigi as the Best Picture winner with the shortest title).
It was a real oversight on the part of the Academy, because it’s not like Ben Affleck’s direction is irrelevant to the movie’s success. Indeed it’s him probably more than anyone else who makes the film work.
The movie tells the true tale (well, pretty much true, with a few deviations) of the 1979 storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. The diplomats are taken hostage, but six of them manage to escape out the side door and find shelter with the Canadian embassy. Initially the Iranians don’t know anyone’s gotten out, but it’s only a matter of time until they’ll realise and if they’re captured, it’s likely they’ll be executed.
With the backers of Iran’s Islamic Revolution baying for American blood, getting the Americans out is going to be difficult. Back in the US, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan – he wants to try and convince the Iranians the Americans are a Canadian film crew scouting for locations to shoot a major sci-fi movie, and get them out using that cover. Although it sounds ludicrous, it may be the only plan that will work. After all, who else would be stupid enough to head for a country still in the throws of revolution, except for Hollywood?
The cover needs to be convincing though, so Tony heads to LA, recruits some film folk and sets about making it look like they really are planning to make a movie. First they need to find the right script though, eventually coming across one called Argo.
You can certainly understand why the Oscar voters like Argo. After all, it paints Hollywood in a rather heroic light, but there’s plenty to enjoy even for the general viewer. While a true life tale set during the Iranian Revolution sounds like it might be heavily political and dull, Argo is more of an old fashioned thriller, with the tension raised in the first few minutes and then ratcheted up across the two hour running time.
Indeed while the opening does spend some time explaining the politics involved – and particularly why the new Iranian leadership had such a hatred of America – this mainly serves to set the stakes high. The whole idea of the cover being a Hollywood movie also helps to balance the tone, so that the section setting up the fake movie is sheer bravado and entertainment, juxtaposed against the increasing tension over in Iran. John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the Hollywood veterans who get involved in the plan are superb, adding plenty of humour to the movie, as well as a surprising amount of emotion.
Sometimes things do get a little close to ridiculous, but perhaps surprisingly it’s never with the seemingly bizarre fake movie plan. Instead it’s with the film’s desire to push the tension to the absolute edge. There’s been a fair amount of talk about how certain events towards the end of the movie never happened, and have obviously been added in to make the escape go down to the wire and get the viewer wondering if the American will get out. However it constantly threatens to go too far and make the whole thing seem rather OTT, coming across like slightly clichéd Hollywood fiction. It gets away with it though, partly due to the fact that adding a bit of Hollywoodised tension to a story about creating a fake movie to get people out of Iran seems oddly fitting.
On the flip side though, it is slightly cheeky as the film makes overt claims to verisimilitude – even showing photos of the real people involved and how much they look like their movie counterparts, as well as photos from the revolution that inspired moments in the movie. The film tries to make you think it’s all very real, when actually it is, like most ‘based on a true story’ movies, a blend of fact and fiction. I’m not even entirely convinced any changes were needed, as the truth is dramatic enough to start with.
Ben Affleck uses an assortment of tricks to help make the movie work, from ensuring the early footage looks like it really was shot in the 1970s to constantly reminding us what’s at stakes and the human side of the story. Not nominating him for an Oscar really was an oversight (although I can’t say I was too upset that Ang Lee won).
As there has been a bit of controversy over how much of Argo is true and how much isn’t, the special features concentrate on the story behind the film. That said, they do skirt around some of the changes to actual events that the film makes, particularly what occurred at the airport, but it’s still all very interesting.
There are several featurettes and documentaries on the Blu-ray recounting the events of 1979 and the Argo mission. Many of those involved are interviewed, including Tony Mendez, several of the Americans trapped with the Canadians and even the President at the time, Jimmy Carter. They’re all worth a watch, with plenty of info about what it was like to actually be there. Probably the best look at the real story is a picture-in-picture option, where the film plays but with interviews popping up with various people involved in the mission. It certainly helps to give context to the story as it’s told in the film. And if you want more on the filmmaking side of the movie, there’s a commentary with Ben Affleck.
On the picture quality side there’s little to complain about. Even the early footage, which is made to look deliberately grainy, has its 1970s feel enhanced by HD, while the rest of the movie shows off how deep the movie went trying to recreate the period it’s set in, dilapidated Hollywood sign and all.
Overall Verdict: An incredible true story turned into an entertaining and very tense film. It may get to the edge of seeming a little OTT at times, but Argo is still an extremely well made and involving thriller.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac