The Best Picture Winners: Argo (2012)

| February 24, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I get the funny feeling that I shouldn’t love Argo as much as I do.  How in the world can a movie be this entertaining while being mounted on a tense and unfortunate series of real events?  It might be impossible to swallow if it weren’t all so true.  It tells the nearly improbable story of the rescue of six American officials who evaded the Iran hostage crisis by slipping out the back door and taking refuge inside the home of the Canadian Ambassador.  Discovery, of course, would mean public execution.

What to do?  Well that’s the job of CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, also the director) who will hire an American film crew to fly into the heart of Iran under the guise of shooting a cheesy sci-fi movie called Argo and walk the officials out and fly them to Switzerland.

This sounds ridiculous but director Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio ground the details so firmly in reality that we can help but get caught up in the mission.  The operation seems doomed from the start, but stranger things have happened.  Mendez hires an Oscar winning make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman) and a laconic producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help secure financing, make sure that the production is air tight and to make sure that the production makes the news – the Iranians need to be made to think that the movie is the real deal.

Meanwhile, Mendez flies into Tehran and lays out the plan to the trapped sextet who remind him that his crackpot scheme could mean their public execution.  Arriving in town he is reminded of the gravity of the situation when he spots a dead man hanging from a construction rig.  Time is of the essence, the movie repeatedly cuts back the Embassy where Iranian children and elderly carpet weavers are employed to stitch together shredded documents at the same time that the terrorists are becoming aware that six people who are on the Embassy ledgers are missing.

The final half hour of this movie is a masterwork of pure suspense.  Most filmmakers are satisfied with chases and violence for their effect, but Affleck trusts our intelligence.  He lets us in on a lot of information early on and establishes a well-plotted narrative so that we know what is happening all the way through.  When we get to the final half hour, we know who the players are and what is at stake.  We know the escape plot as the crew gets from one tense checkpoint to the next.  There are small details established in these scenes – a ringing telephone; a stalled bus; a bad computer connection; a locked door; a Polaroid photograph – that build the suspense out of logic, not cliché.  This film is so perfectly paced that you want to applaud it.

There are great supporting performances here, and that is key.  Victor Garber is perfect as Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador.  As is Bryan Cranston as Tony’s CIA contact who acts at a key moment when the mission looks like it will be recalled by the folks at the White House.  Also good is John Goodman as the make-up man John Chambers.  But the best praise goes to Alan Arkin in a wonderful peformance as the cynical, sleepy-eyed producer Lester Siegel who assures Mendez “If I’m making a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit.”  Arkin, now 78, has always been a treasure, an actor who seems to occupy a movie with such ease that he almost seems to live there.

All of these elements come together in a movie that is wonderfully entertaining, suspenseful and at times very funny.  Affleck, with this film and his previous directing efforts on The Town and Gone Baby Gone has a sure hand as a director.  He clearly loves the craft and he respects us as viewers.  Not only that, but he puts himself in the starring role and resists the temptation to make it flashy.  He could reasonably have given himself a heroic posture here, but he lets us know that Mendez is only a key player, that so many people at home and abroad have a hand in this mission.

Argo could have gone wrong is so many ways, but there are sly in-jokes here about the way Hollywood works that you almost feel like rewarding it just for that.  There’s a beautiful scene late in the film when the fake film crew show the airport security some storyboards for the science fiction film – they, of course, think the movie is real.  For a moment the young Iranians get so caught up in the magic of movies that they forget their jobs.  That this scene takes place at a moment teeming with suspense says something of the filmmaking and of the pure power of the movies.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.