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Argo (2012)

Capturing Perfection

There's no such thing as a perfect movie. Objectively, there can't be--right?

Well, if someone can please help me find a flaw in Argo (a real one; not a nit picky complaint about butterfly collars or something), I'd be very grateful. Until then, it will remain not only my top film of the year so far, but as close to an unparalleled masterpiece as I've seen.

How 'bout that hyperbole, eh?

Let's back up. Of course, a movie can't be all things to all people, and to enjoy Argo to the degree I did, you must follow three very important rules (kinda like raising a Mogwai):

1. Don't do your homework. Going into the film, I had a passing familiarity with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which a mob of Ayatollah loyalists stormed the American embassy. Argo tells the story of six office workers who escaped just before the raid and sought refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). I didn't know how their story ended--which went a long way in maintaining tension during a movie whose conclusion is only a Google search away.

2. Leave your Affleck prejudice at the box office. Less than ten years ago, it was not only hip to make fun of Ben Affleck, it was practically a requirement for U.S. citizenship. Sure, he made an inordinate amount of terrible films during his first fifteen minutes of fame, and the bizarre, plastic version of himself that Jennifer Lopez paraded around "the block" during their time together was creepier than those twins from The Shining. But the actor has reinvented himself as a capable enough director to make even a so-so heist picture like The Town at least visually pleasing.

With Argo, Affleck announces to the world that he's ready for Oscar. His performance as "exfiltration expert" Tony Mendez is brilliantly understated without being flat. His character's job is to blend in to crowds, gain and instill confidence in dangerous men, and pull the wool over the eyes of large groups of people. Affleck plays Mendez as cool but ultimately lost between his various identities. Somewhere along the way, his patriotism smothered his ability to be a family man, and when even his skills as a spy are challenged by one of the six office workers, we see him struggle to find meaning in anything he does.

I'll get into the particulars of his stunning filmmaking soon. But if you or your significant other are avoiding Argo because it's "that new Ben Affleck movie", prepare to be surprised and amazed.

3. Imagination's rising tide lifts all BOATS. As you may know, I have a real problem with movies that are "Based on a True Story"; they tend to be sappy and predictable, with plot developments that feel formulated rather than ripped from reality. Argo is based on a story that was classified until 1997, when the truth of Mendez's CIA adventure finally came out.

Whether or not you're a student of history, Argo builds a compelling universe whose logic and events serve its story well. It's unclear how much liberty Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio (working from a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) took with the actual events (or how much of the truth was available to them in the first place*), but the movie doesn't feel like generic, Awards Season product. The filmmakers ask a lot of big questions whose answers might only be found through research and introspection after the fact. In short, it doesn't matter how true Argo's story is because very little in it rings false.

Even if you completely ignore these rules (and, really, why shouldn't you?), it's likely you'll have a great time watching Argo. The dynamite trio of Affleck, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, and editor William Goldenberg serve up a series of tensely claustrophobic scenes that place the audience squarely in the company of their characters. The first ten minutes are as thrilling and nerve-killing as the opening chase in Casino Royale or the beginning of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. Like all great thrillers, Argo uses its adrenaline jolts sparingly, keeping us on our toes after demonstrating what it's capable of.

Oh, did I mention that the movie is also hilarious? Here's a rare case of a politically charged, high-stakes drama that deftly lobs joke bombs into the middle of very serious scenes. Part of this stems, I'd bet, from the fact that Mendez's mission is so impossible that it requires a ridiculous, out-of-the-box solution: he poses as a representative of an American movie studio who's on his way to Iran for a location scout. He claims he's due to meet with a Canadian film crew who are wrapping up business before heading back home. The crew, of course, is to be comprised of the office workers, and Mendez meets with them in the ambassador's house to distribute new, government-issue IDs and drill richly detailed cover stories into each of their heads. 

Assisting him in this mission is Academy Award-winning makeup effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and an old producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Using CIA funding, they establish a production company, hire a storyboard artist, and get the Hollywood trades to talk about their hot, new, sci-fi adventure, Argo--an ostensible cash-in on the still-pubescent Star Wars phenomenon. This leaves the door wide open for plenty of entertainment-industry jokes, and an excuse for Affleck and Goldenberg to inject comic relief when matters get a bit too heavy on the other side of the world. In one scene, the two sensibilities meet beautifully during a cross-cut montage of the fake movie's table read and the embassy hostage-takers' preparations for executing their captives.

And that's probably what I love the most about Argo. In combining Hollywood satire with one of the blackest periods in our nation's history, Affleck and Terrio not only make the big questions I alluded to earlier more palatable, they also make a statement about the universal power of fantasy. There's a terrific moment during the climax, when one of the office workers acts out a series of storyboards for a check point guard that underscores the human race's unifying desire to make believe; for just a moment, the reality that seven people could be publicly executed for trying to escape Iran using fake credentials disappears, and is replaced by a hearkening back to the innocence of children pretending--children who know nothing of race, religious tension, or national boundaries.

As you may have guessed, America isn't painted in the best light here, and that's perfectly fine. The film opens with a brief history lesson of the United States' tensions with Iran, beginning with the CIA-backed, 1953 overthrow of its democratically elected president, Mossadegh and ending with the oppressive dictator who replaced him seeking asylum from President Carter in '79. Though Mendez and his cohorts do the best they can to save the office workers, the elephant in the room is the fact that they're simply dealing with the repercussions of their employers' actions. Affleck does a great job of showing the animosity and backwards-thinking of both factions, while also recognizing their infrequent moments of heroism.

There's nothing about this movie that I don't love. From the uniformly terrific acting (even the single-line parts are played by great character actors); to the period-authentic production design; to action that's guaranteed to get your blood up, even when the people involved are simply standing in line--Argo delivers the kind of passionate, big-idea, high-quality filmmaking that stimulates the mind as well as the nerves.

*I'm reminded of a recent Lionel podcast in which my favorite conspiracy analyst (next to Gore Vidal) questioned the logic behind the CIA releasing press statements. Why should anyone believe anything--especially a "declassified" story--coming from an agency whose guiding principle is disinformation? Try watching Argo a second time with that in mind and have fun putting your brain back together.