“Argo”: The science-fiction epic that didn’t exist
In 1980, political instability and rebellion shook the grounds of Iran, a once prosperous city run dry by the greed and evil of its former shah, Mohammad Pahlavi. When the U.S. agreed to house Pahlavi in southern California after he contracted cancer, the Iranian people stormed the U.S. Embassy in a furious rage and took everybody inside hostage. Only six Americans escaped with their well-beings intact.
This is the true story of Argo, a political thriller based on the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980. After barely escaping the U.S. embassy just before it is overran by Iranians, the Americans flee and take refuge inside Canadain Ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) house as social and political stability continues to crumble outside of the Taylor household. They remain stuck there for 69 days.
Enter the CIA. The intelligence agency plots ways to try and rescue the Americans and get them home to safety, but no luck. Their best ideas involve riding bicycles and meeting them at the border with gatorade. All hope seems lost until Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) hatches the idea of disguising the American’s as a film crew scouting for locations out in Iran. As the Secretary of State asks Tony Mendez, “You got any better bad idea than this?”
“This is the best bad idea we have sir. By far.”
Here is a movie that knows how to utilize suspense and tension to the fullest effect. Similarly to how Kathryn Bigelow sets up the stakes of the film within the establishing shot of the 2009 best picture winner The Hurt Locker, Argo similarly sets up its stakes with a tense, horrifying sequence of the Iranians overrunning the U.S. Embassy in the beginning shot. They jump over walls and tear down the gates as they storm through the front lawn. They break through doors and windows as they charge into the building, screaming as they hold up picket signs and crow bars. They bind their hostages in rope and cloth as they grab and shake them all while screaming into their ears and breaking furniture around them. In the world of film, the goal is to put audiences into the scene, into the moment of the picture. We are not just put into the environment of Iran in Argo: we are immersed in it.
At the same time though, this is a movie that knows how to expertly balance drama with humor and comedy. Two essential roles in this movie help achieve this: John Goodman as make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin as movie producer Lester Seigel. These two are the C-3PO and R2-D2 of filmmakers, a duo who argue and bicker over the smallest, funniest of details. In one scene where they were looking over scripts for the operation, Lester complains as to how they are all of poor quality.
John: “We’re making a fake movie here.”
Lester: “If we’re making a fake movie, I want it to be a fake hit.”
This is one of those rarities of films where it transcends merely being labeled as a “movie” and has graduated to being something as an “experience”. Argo is a tense, nerve-wracking film. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, cringing, waiting, teeth chattering, spine tingling with every tense moment of the film pulsating through your entire body. Ben Affleck directs this film with alluring precision, utilizing jump-cuts and precise cutaways to the greatest effect during this American horror that is a true story.
Very few films match the precision and craftmanship that this film possesses. Combine that with the film’s smart, witty dialogue, as well as its great spirit for humanity, and what you have is one of, if not, the best drama film of the year.