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Movie review: Argo


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Ben Aflleck (left) and Brian Cranston (right) in a scene from  "Argo". — Courtesy Photo
Ben Affleck (left) and Brian Cranston (right) in a scene from "Argo". — Courtesy Photo

Ben Affleck’s surprise thriller Argo is a seemingly come-from-behind movie that took moviegoers and critics by storm.

With epics by Hollywood stalwarts such as Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, or Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty vying for Oscar gold, Affleck feels like that punk kid trying to upstage the old guard.

But Argo has already become an award-season favourite, having won big at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards and is expected to carry the Big Mo into the Academy Awards.

A quintessential life-is-stranger-than-fiction tale, Argo tells the true story of a daring, albeit ridiculous, escape plan involving six American hostages in Iran and an unorthodox CIA agent named Tony Mendez.

The movie opened on November 4, 1979 with images of furious Iranians in a spontaneous up-from-the-streets eruption against the yoke of US imperialism, who storm the US embassy in Tehran and take its employees hostage.

The protesters are seen churning to a slow boil outside, while inside, embassy employees feverishly destroy documents, as it dawns on them that the cavalry isn't coming. They're on their own.

But six members of the consular staff escape the embassy and eventually end up at Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) home where they are sheltered as supposed personal friends, knowing they might face public execution if they are caught.

This is where Tony Mendez steps in. While watching a few minutes of Planet of the Apes on TV, Mendez, the resident CIA exfiltration expert, contrives what agency head honchos grudgingly admit is “the best bad idea we’ve got”.

As part of the rescue mission, the six house guests would pose as a Canadian film crew who’ve travelled to Iran to scout a location for a science fiction epic. The plan would entail supplying them with fake Canadian passports and flying out from the airport right under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As one skeptic observes, Mendez’s plan comes from the long-standing “so crazy it just might work” school of thought.

What ensues has the vibe of a classic caper movie ala Ocean's Eleven crossed with the political heaviness of Thirteen Days (2000).

It’s an enjoyable and thrilling movie, laced with a smart wit that depicts Hollywood at its most self deprecating best. Self deprecation being the appetizer of charm as Aaron Sorkin would say, but it sets its face disconcertingly against satire and mischief and veers into schmaltzy, American jingoism that is executed with just enough subtlety for it not to make you queasy.

Affleck, having already proved his directing chops in films such as Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), ups the ante handling one of the darker chapters of American history with velvet finesse. You can sense the tension, feel the beads of sweat, perhaps because those tensions haven’t gone away. And Affleck knows that.

As Mendez, Affleck elicits a scruffy sympathy, but it is John Goodman and Alan Arkin who steal the show. Their chemistry in portraying veteran Hollywood wisemen is what provides Argo with its best moments. Witty and cynical, their chemistry is sublime and feels genuinely real.

A highlight of the film has to be Farshad Farahat’s dynamite performance as a frenetic Revolutionary Guardsman at the airport who vividly illustrates the mistrust of the US at the time and which has metastasized over decades from that moment on.

But Hollywood has always had trouble with nuance when it comes to the Middle East. You’d think there would be room to acknowledge the complexity of Iran and the justice of many of its attitudes, but Argo at times feels like an attempt to reinforce old enmities and the cliché of the angry Iranian in the name of making an astute but ultimately hokey thriller.

Much of the movie shows Iran as a theocratic menace and Iranians as enraged mobs while it fails to provide any sane voices from Iran. There is that maid in the Canadian embassy who despite all their suspicions turns out to be on the side of the hostages, which comes as too little, too late. It’s a welcome little nugget, but not enough to offset the rest of the movie.

That said, Argo is by far Affleck’s best work. And while he, along with Katherine Bigelow, was snubbed in the Academy Award nominations in the director category, Aflleck has been winning accolade after accolade for his work, first at the SAG Awards, and just recently at the Director’s Guild of America.

But while it dazzles on so many levels, its binary view of history makes it fall just short of brilliant.

Comments (12) Closed

Saad Naeem Feb 05, 2013 02:02pm
So a B747 takes off at the same speed as a normal pickup truck. Also those huge engines neither ingest nor blast any of those approaching trucks. hmmmmm....
Kris Subh Feb 06, 2013 05:08pm
Argo is ARGUABLY the BEST !
Shubs Feb 05, 2013 11:29am
Hollywood has never tried to hide its blatant use of nationalism to sell movies. C'mon, every single action movie has the underdog American getting the better of the villain of the day (usually the current Public Enemy #1 of the time..., think Russians, Cubans, Iranians, North Koreans, and these days, Pakistan...for some strange reason, very few Vietnamese villains). We've seen Americans battle blood thirsty throngs of third-world automatons in innumerable movies. We've seen them turn history into a joke (300, anyone?). We've seen an American President personally kick the crap out of bad guys and take over a plane. Sitting far away, it's easy to think that Hollywood feeds public perception about global history and geopolitics in the US. And that is partly true. But not when it comes to the demographic that really matters, the ones taking the decisions, the ones in charge. While it may be true that the worldview of unelected dictators in many of the countries we know so well, may be moulded by third-rate popular culture or religious dogma, the US can hardly be held to the same yardstick. And so, ultimately, while movies may be the entire known universe to some people, for most of us, a movie is just that - a movie, a work of fiction. And it is especially relevant in my country (India) today, where fringe groups are creating havoc in the artistic and creative landscape of the country.
Stranger Feb 05, 2013 02:44pm
How is it in all 'such' movies, the Americans are good guys and the 'others' are bad. Every single time how does it happen.
Rashid Sultan Feb 05, 2013 11:03am
great film. must c.
abbastoronto Feb 05, 2013 10:59am
Americans need to convince themselves that Iranians can be outplayed, outwitted, beaten. In these troubled times, this bad idea fits right in.
desi-american Feb 05, 2013 11:19pm
I think you forget that this movie was based on a true story that has been de-classified and hence available to Hollywood. In this case the Iranians were outplayed, outwitted, beaten.
neokhan Feb 05, 2013 11:41pm
i feel this review lack concentration in highlighting the reasoning behind the iranian people frustration towards usa. i think the opening highlights the FACTS very well & i do recall the scene related to siege of usa embassy where an old woman is holding her son pic who was killed by SHAH. so i feel this movies does a great job in keeping that balancing. besides, this is not a bollywood movie where everything should be shown by MAKING IT SOOOO OBVIOUS. i hope to read more detailed analytic reviews for next time :)
Martie Feb 06, 2013 03:37am
Just saw this movie today and loved it. Was on the edge of my seat at the end. Loved all the accolades to Canada. People just sat there without a word at the end.
Rony Feb 06, 2013 03:46am
I think ARGO will elicit different reactions from different people. If it is looked upon as a history lesson, obviously it will be caught on the wrong foot. On the other hand, it is a taut entertainer.
Desi Feb 06, 2013 06:06am
Over rated film and a propaganda stunt
murali Feb 06, 2013 06:26am
Surprising that none of the comments called for ban on Hollywood movies to save local cinema industry, which otherwise would enthusiastically do if the review was of a Bollywood movie.