Movies: Argo

Football season is over, which means it’s movie season.

Mrs Swade and I will be seating ourselves in the cozy confines of the State Theatre from time to time, chewing on some chocolate swirls and enjoying a beverage or two (Hartz cola for me, a glass of merlot for she) whilst taking in some of the latest action on the silver screen.

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Argo tells the story of the escape of US citizens from Tehran at the height of the US hostage crisis from late in 1979 to January 1981. When the US embassy was stormed by Iranian students, six embassy workers managed to escape on to the street undetected and take up residence, in secret, in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

This film tells the story of the CIA plan to get the six people out of the country at a time when Iran was transitioning after the first days of the revolution. Tensions are high and the plan is just implausible enough to work.

CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan to get the group to pose as a Canadian film crew scouting Iran for locations to be used in a science fiction film. The fictional film they’ll be making is called Argo, based on a rejected script from the late 1970s. The CIA ends up sponsoring its own Hollywood production company to build up credibility for the film – the escapees will need a decent, checkable cover story, after all. They engaged real life Hollywood movers and shakers, even staging a public reading of the script to get it covered in the newspapers.

What follows is an action/suspense work of considerable weight with a surprising dose of great one-liners that are well placed and lack the cheesiness you might expect from a Hollywood film. I was certainly surprised by the amount of laughter at our screening, which was full of 40+ year olds. I was even more surprised to find myself laughing along with them.

Argo is based on a true story – de-classified by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s – and one of the problems with telling true stories is that people will often know the ending before they even sit down in their seat. Still, Argo is drawn out nicely and whilst you know they get away in the end, it’s HOW they get away that keeps you interested – right up until take-off.

The characters manage to surprise you and the casting, which is full of known names, is such that you don’t get carried away with their real-life identities (I’m guilty of thinking “De Niro’s doing a great job in this movie” from time to time). It feels quite natural throughout to engage with the characters in their setting.

Ben Affleck not only does a great job as Tony Mendez, he also takes kudos for a good job in directing Argo (the real film, not the fictional one). Alan Arkin is absolutely superb – and hilarious at times – as the Hollywood director engaged by the CIA to build a production company to give the plot authenticity. John Goodman plays the Academy Award winning John Chambers, who also helps to build the fictional film’s backstory. The other big name is Bryan Cranston, who most will be familiar with from small screen (Breaking Bad, Malcolm in the Middle). He plays Affleck’s CIA boss.

Make sure you stay and watch the first half of the film credits. They show the actors from the film along with the original fake Canadian passports used by the six Americans to get out of the country. The likenesses are remarkable.

The other notable likenesses are the sets and the re-creation of historical photographs from the era, also shown at the end of the film.

Argo isn’t the best film I’ve seen this year but it would definitely be in the top 3. It’s a great story, more remarkable because it’s true, and it’s very well made.

Mrs Swade and I gave it 4 Stars (out of five)

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The original fake poster from 1980:

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5 Comments

  1. Well, it is sorta true. It is based on a true story, but the story isn’t exactly true. It got changed for Hollywood, amplifying the role of the CIA and reducing the role of the Canadian ambassador, Key Taylor. It seems Mr. Taylor isn’t too pleased about the history re-write. Here is what it said in McCleans – a Canadian news magazine:

    “It’s standard practice in Hollywood to mess with facts for dramatic effect. But Argo’s magnification of the U.S. role is “absolute nonsense,” says Taylor. “The departure went very smoothly. I bought the airline tickets—I bought sets from three different airlines and paid cash. And I had the final veto. For every hour spent in Washington, there were two spent in Ottawa. Mendez did not become involved until a month after we’d taken over. He spent two days there.”

    Still, it does sound like an enjoyable film. Me & the Mrs. might have to see it too.

    1. The dramatic licence doesn’t surprise me at all, Keith. I hope it doesn’t detract from the film for you. We both thought it was very enjoyable, probably me more than the Mrs, but she really enjoyed it, too.

      1. This is a good heads-up for what sounds like an interesting film.

        Keith’s comment is very illuminating.

        I agree, the dramatic licence doesn’t surprise me either. If there’s a general tension between fact and interpretation, there is an even greater tension between fact and what an artist is licensed to do with those facts.

        Anyway, since the topic of this film remains such a politically charged one, I would guess that Hollywood was never going to pass up the opportunity to rewrite things as a straight fight between itself and the CIA on one hand (Good Guys) and the Islamist hostage-takers (Bad Guys) on the other just for the sake of historical accuracy or not offending the Canadians.

        Going to see Skyfall tonight…

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