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Movie Review: Argo – Best Picture Any Other Year But This One

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On the old TV series The A-Team, Mr. T’s character BA used to say, “I pity the fool…”, and you can kind of complete that sentence in regards to this year’s Academy Award nominees by adding, “who goes up against Lincoln.” Such is the case for director Ben Affleck’s amazing film Argo. It has the misfortune of going up against Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is destined for almost certain victory in probably most of the twelve categories in which it was nominated.

Argo is a vastly superior film coming from a director who has honed his craft, but he is a foundling compared to Spielberg whose resume goes back to before Affleck was born. Affleck proved with The Town that he had directing chops, but in Argo he has risen to new heights. The story is based on true events that happened during the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), after workers at the American Embassy were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries on November 4, 1979.

The adapted screenplay by Chris Terrio is rightly nominated. It covers the vast and complex ruse that is at the heart of the film: Affleck’s CIA operative Tony Mendez comes up with a unique ploy to rescue six Americans who escaped the embassy and are hiding in the Canadian Embassy. He creates a fake movie, entitled Argo, about space explorers on a strange planet (as sort of a new Star Wars). His ruse is to want to make this film in Iran, and he believes he will be able to extract the six Americans as Canadians working on the film.

There is such conflict and tension, and Affleck does a fine job chronicling the escalating frenzy of officials behind the scenes working to get the job done. He also captures the essence of what was then a fading old time Hollywood. In film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin’s nominated for best supporting actor) we see the last vestiges of the archaic studio system, but Siegel manages to use his contacts to get the “film” into publicity and creates a semblance of a real production in the making. This is the cover Mendez needs for his plot to be truly effective.

The sequences with Arkin in Hollywood are a form of comic relief, similar to Shakespeare’s gravediggers who would alleviate the heft of the proceedings and offer the audience a chuckle or two. Back in Iran the six escapees get increasingly nervous as they feel the Iranians are closing in on them, and the fact is that they are because the captors have discovered that they do not have all the Americans as hostages in the American Embassy. They are piecing together shredded documents in hopes of seeing the faces of those who escaped.

Affleck keeps it all moving along and the conflict is real and palpable as Mendez goes to Iran and tries to accomplish his task. The rescue at times seems threatened by circumstance and bad luck, but Mendez convinces the six Americans that he is their best chance of ever getting out of Iran, and so they go along with the plan.

Credit has to go to a fine cast that includes John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, and Tate Donovan. But the film rests on Affleck as actor and director. Just as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen have done time and again, Affleck seems to be able to wear the two hats and do an excellent job wearing both. Mendez’s tenacious efforts, with great assistance from the Canadians, are in the end what propel this film.

Argo is the best of the bunch in the Best Picture category but will not go home with the Oscar, which most certainly will be handed to Spielberg, and that is unfortunate. It is a compelling, sometimes terrifying, and extremely maddening film that keeps you guessing and hoping right up until the final moments. It is a great story told by a master storyteller, and Affleck must now be considered as one of Hollywood’s premier directors. After you see Argo I am sure you will most certainly agree with me.

Photo credits: Warner Bros.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • Mario

    I totally agree with Zina, pure US propaganda. The worst movie I have partially watched (I watched the first 30 minutes and got so bored I had to skim through it). The argument is solid (it is not based in seeking justice for the people in Iran, who were occupied by the avaricious US Government). Instead, it is based on an almost comical plot about a plan to save these “innocent” hostages (yes, with quotes, because they knew they were hiding information that they tried to shred as the movie depicts at the very beginning) by a fake movie. The plot is light years beyond predictable, the end is cliche at its worst. Its even worse than “The King’s Speech” and many other awful Oscar winners. I don’t know why I even bother writing a review, but anyway there it is.

  • Zina

    Argo winning the Academy Award was an absolute political decision made by the white house as announced by! It has nothing to do with being the best movie.

  • You were pleasantly wrong — Argo won, even this year.

  • Glenn, I know exactly what you mean about that scene on the plane. When they were allowed to have a drink and the champagne cork popped, well what relief.

    To me this was a great acheivement because we knew how things would turn out, but I was on pins and needles right up until the end. In my opinion that is great storytelling and a great ending!

  • Glenn Contrarian

    What I will always remember about Argo is the scene where they’re flying out of Teheran on that jet. My wife was holding my hand tightly, and I knew why. You see, she flew into San Francisco on a tourist visa, and many times she’s told me of how she had to ditch her tightly-supervised tour group – she had to leave her luggage behind to do it – and essentially escaped from the airport with her brother-in-law. She was 19, she’d only met her brother-in-law once, and she knew no one else in America. She’s the most courageous and competent person I’ve ever known. I’m a very, very lucky guy.

    Anyway, she was gripping my hand tighter during Argo because she knew to some extent how she felt. Of course their lives were on the line, and with her it was ‘only’ her future, but she and they risked all on a knife-edge of chance. In both cases they were chasing hope – but they were going back to what they knew and loved, whereas she was going away to a place she’d known only on television.

    Once the plane was away in Argo she clapped (and so did I), and our youngest son looked at us, wondering just what the heck we were so happy about….

  • Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for Best Actor and that’s how it should be. His portrayal of Lincoln was the most extraordinary piece of film acting I’ve seen in quite a while.

    Tommy Lee Jones will most likely pocket Best Supporting as well, though James Spader and David Strathairn did just as competent a job as Jones and had more screen time. I’m disappointed neither of them were nominated.

    The film will probably take home a handful of Oscars, but not a sweep. The Academy doesn’t seem to be in a Spielberg sort of mood these days.

  • I saw Argo and don’t agree with you. It was good, but certainly not great, especially with the formulaic ending shot like every generic action movie. Wouldn’t be my Best Picture any year.

    “Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is destined for almost certain victory in probably most of the twelve categories in which it was nominated.”

    Other than DDL, I have no idea what you base this on considering how poor Lincoln’s record during award season has been so far.

  • Igor

    Good review. I look forward to seeing this movie.

  • Alexi

    Very good article though.

  • Alexi

    ‘Lincon, which is destined for almost certain victory’ yet which film has one Best Picture at all the mayor award ceremonies this season? Argo.