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.