Dir. by Ben Affleck - 2 hours
by Clayton Hollifield
"Argo" is the best film I've seen all year. Rather than starting off with generic praise, I'll just get down to the details in a minute here.
"Argo" is a film about the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for an extended period of time in the American Embassy to Iran. This story isn't about the 52 that were held hostage, but about the six Americans that managed to slip out of the Embassy and avoided being held hostage, but who couldn't escape Tehran, and had to go into hiding. In a joint operation between the C.I.A. and Canada, there was a daring escape attempt in order to get these six diplomats out of Tehran and safely back home. This attempt was the brainchild of Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), and involved posing the diplomats as a Canadian film crew.
So where do I start with the praise? A lot of the talk about this film has been centered around it being an intelligent adult drama (in the sense that it's not dumbed down in the least for children), and the film that it frequently gets compared to is "Michael Clayton." I'd throw another George Clooney movie in there as well, "Syriana." It's probably not a coincidence that Clooney served as a producer for "Argo." But these comparisons are accurate. The word that most describes just about everything in "Argo" is "complicated." As Mendez says at one point, "This is the best bad choice." When you get in certain situations, all there are is bad choices, and all that you can do is minimize the impact. This is especially true in this scenario, where Iranian militants have taken hostages in part because of the actions of the United States (it's explained rather deftly in the film, but the Iranian outrage was over the U.S. offering asylum to an infirm former Shah, who wasn't particularly well-liked). There is no moral high-ground to be taken, but nor can the U.S. government just stand by and allow their citizens to be held hostage (with the constant looming threat of execution hanging in the air). "Argo" manages to explain a very difficult situation well, as well as portraying the practical consequences of the situation.
There's also a fantastic attention to detail in "Argo," which begins with the film using the period Warner Brothers logo at the beginning. Aside from the necessary cars and fashion points, the actors involved all resemble the actual people being depicted (the end credits show pictures of the real-life people and the actors at the same time, to drive home that point). And since the setting itself (Iran in 1980) is very specific, the film does a great job of showing how things functioned there without having to come out and tell you things. The other big part of the film is sort of a Hollywood story (this is where John Goodman and Alan Arkin come into play), and that part is equally excellent (and offers a bit of levity in a very tense, focused film).
But chiefly, this is a dramatic, tense true-life story that's executed extremely well. The acting is great, you get a real taste for what the region looks like, and for just how difficult of a situation everyone was in. Partially, "Argo" serves as a history lesson (which is useful regarding a region that's had a (you guessed it) complicated relationship with the U.S. over the years), but never feels like one. One of the most moving things happened for me after the film ended; I overheard a woman who was old enough to have been paying attention the first time around explain to the people that she was with that situation covered in "Argo" was one of the things that ended up costing Jimmy Carter a second term as President. After watching a film about brave, selfless people working for the betterment of their countries at great personal risk and cost (and one of the key components to this story was the personal cost of the work that these people did), and how these people couldn't take credit for this work because of the danger that it would put their countrymen in, hearing a woman explain how the events shown in "Argo" was used for personal political gain at Carter's expense is a very timely and important message for all to hear. While it might seem that everyone involved in government is in it solely for their own glory, "Argo" is contrary testimony.
4.5 / 5 - Theatre