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Road to the Oscars 2012: Argo

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief


Argo’s surprising Best Picture – Drama win at the recent Golden Globes, has sparked debate on its chances to go home with the Best Picture Oscar in a few weeks.  I won’t go into that until this series is over, but between you and me, I hope it does win.  A crucial theme with the slate of Best Picture nominees is the behind-the-scenes tales behind America’s darkest times.  It’s a theme I explored in Zero Dark Thirty, and that we’ll see again in Lincoln, and Django UnchainedArgo details the secret plot to retrieve six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and does so in a contained and efficient manner.  The stakes are always high, and director/star Ben Affleck imbues the film with an Old Hollywood feel that borderlines on neo-noir; a stellar movie that shows the best in Hollywood film making.  

Six Americans find themselves trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis of the 1970s.  CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is tasked with getting them out of the country.  He decides to have them pose as a film crew, making a fake sci-fi epic entitled Argo, and fly out.  Enlisting a few Hollywood A-listers to create the film, Mendez and his crew have to work fast before the six are discovered by the Iranian government.

With his third directorial effort, Ben Affleck proves his skill behind the camera.  I consider this his most accomplished film to date, merely because he works with a slew of elements we’ve never seen from him before.  Here, he has the heady task of taking a real-life event, set in a time period that’s not current, and doesn’t have anything to do with his beloved Boston; and he succeeds!  I hate to compare this to Zero Dark Thirty, but Affleck knows that not everyone may understand the players and he introduces the film by explaining what’s led up to the problem with Iran.  He tells a story that, sadly, continues to this day (albeit with different players).  When an Iranian woman crosses into Iraq at the conclusion, there’s an ominous feeling that resonates with the audience.  The feeling that eventually we’ll be there too, and American lives will be at stake.  Affleck also commits to the 1970s setting, and the way the story unfolds evokes 1970s action/neo-noir.  The suspense of the final airplane scene leaves you on the edge of your seat as the frenetic camera moves to all the people involved.  Will someone answer the phone in time?  Will their cover stories break?  I blog about classic film, and watching Argo made me think of 70s action films immediately.  

For a serious story, there are genuine moments of levity that are pulled off due to the close-knit cast.  Since the six Americans, named the Houseguests by the CIA, have been together for 69 when the plot gets moving, it’s only natural that they’ve come to know each other so well.  When Affleck lingers on them having dinner or other interactions, they talk and play like they’ve been locked up with each other for the depicted amount of time.  When they’re able to let loose towards the end, it’s like watching old friends.  When they fight, it’s again like watching old friends.  Yes, Affleck directing and playing the lead screams of egomania, but he plays Tony Mendez with shades of Steve McQueen or any other 1970s action star.  He’s confident, but vulnerable.  He’s a flawed man who’s separated from his wife and son, and death is staring him in the face with this mission.  When he finally confesses about his life to Houseguest Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), it’s an unburdening of Mendez’s character.

The acting from everyone in this film is incredible.  It’s a cohesive ensemble that is the best of the Oscar bunch (I actually think they’re better than the assembled group from Les Miserables.)  McNairy as the skeptical Stafford is a dramatic antagonist to Affleck’s Mendez.  The two don’t physically clash, but their mentality with regards to Mendez’s plan make for vulnerable moments between both actors.  I enjoyed McNairy here far more than I did in Killing Them Softly.  Kerry Bishe and Clea Duvall are strong as the sole ladies of the film.  The scene stealers are John Goodman and Alan Arkin (who has been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category).  They play the L.A. movers and shakers in the film and bring a lot of the humor.  To them, this is a chance to be a part of history, and to show how simple it is to be a Hollywood insider.  The entertainment industry, in its own way, is one of deception (look how quickly a film can go into “turnaround.”)  I think Arkin has some stiff competition, and really this isn’t his strongest role, but both he and Goodman have fun playing off each other.  

Argo does have its flaws, and depending on your preference it could torpedo the entire movie.  Argo feels remarkably cut and dry.  The plot knows exactly where it wants to go, and there’s virtually nothing unpredictable.  If you go to Wikipedia, or if you lived through the events you should know things end rather happily.  It didn’t bother me, but it is Hollywood Screenwriting 101 here.  

Regardless, I still consider Argo one of the best movies of 2012 and of this Oscar season.  I haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook yet, but I doubt I’ll be changing my mind.  Affleck cements his status as a serious director, and I don’t think you can deny that he’s got something magical.  Argo is suspenseful, well-made, well-executed, and well-acted.  Fingers crossed for that Oscar, and Ben don’t feel bad that the Academy snubbed you.