When I first saw the trailer for Argo, before it started earning all sorts of praise and awards, I thought it looked intriguing but potentially confusing. I tend to run in the other direction from historically-based political dramas unless I happen to be well versed in the specific events they’re covering. I know I’m not alone, so to those who can relate, I will say this: Argo boasts a surprisingly streamlined narrative that is entertaining and easy to follow (which works both for and against it; more on that later).
Argo is Affleck’s third film as director (following Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and The Town in 2010) and his most ambitious to date. It’s based on the true story of six ordinary people who, while working at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, escape a siege by Iranian militants that resulted in the capture of 52 Americans who were subsequently held hostage from late 1979 to early ’81. The six U.S. citizens find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor. The challenge for the CIA is getting the six out of Iran without trouble.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA exfiltration specialist, who cooks up a so-crazy-it-just-might-work rescue scenario, dubbed the "Canadian Caper." The six “house guests” will pose as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a Star Wars-style sci-fi movie. That’s when the loopy fun starts, as Mendez sets about creating a production company, hooking up with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, Oscar-nominated for his sly turn) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman). Siegel is fictitious, while Chambers was a real-life cinema makeup pioneer. They option a B-movie script called Argo and draft up cover stories for each member of the “crew” (i.e. the six scared, skeptical guests of the Canadian ambassador). After the exhilaration of watching the Hollywood types pretending to be in preproduction, the film takes a more grim, serious turn as complications arise in Iran.
If there’s a problem with Argo, which works like gangbusters as a straightforward thriller, it’s that it really isn’t about anything deeper on a thematic level. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have crafted a version of this incredible historical event (which remained classified until 1997) that tells a great story with incredible style. But it could be argued, given the historical context and complex international politics involved, that using this “subplot” of the larger Iran hostage crisis as the backdrop for what is essentially a popcorn movie was not necessarily the best choice.
Amping up the tension was almost inevitable for the sake of compelling cinematic storytelling. However, even a cursory fact check shows the tweaking resulted in turning the Iranian citizens into a collective sinister opposition while downplaying not only the more extensive role of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, but also efforts by British and New Zealand diplomats. I’m no expert, so I won’t pretend to be. My general (and freely admitted) ignorance about U.S.-Iranian relations prior to seeing Argo helps illustrate the point I’m trying to make. For anyone whose understanding of recent international political history is lacking, a movie that plays relatively fast and loose with facts can pose a danger. I don’t blame anyone who watches Argo and takes everything it presents at face value. In fact, I would have too if I wasn’t attempting to provide semi-coherent commentary about a movie that is perhaps overpraised. How often does the movie version of history supplant the actual facts, at least purely on the level of mass public perception?
Combining a variety of shooting formats, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is well represented on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer ranges from considerably grainy footage, reminiscent of films actually produced circa 1980, to shots boasting razor sharp clarity. Somehow it all holds together smoothly, from the “vintage” Warner Brothers logo at the start (complete with dirt specs) to the “real photos vs. movie stills” comparisons that close the film. Colors are generally muted, very much in line with the gritty atmosphere.
I was quite pleasantly surprised by how much surround activity is present in the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. In fact, there’s a robust amount of LFE rumbling as well. I’m not surprised Argo was Oscar-nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Editing. It’s not a slam-bang action movie, but the mix creates a sense of realism that places the viewer in the thick of things. Scenes involving throngs of protesters are among the most obviously impressive, with fully immersive crowd noise coming from each channel. The climatic airport scene is another standout, once the jet engines really kick in. But the quiet, dialogue-dominated scenes are handled with just as much care.
I love the package of supplemental features Warner has assembled for this Blu-ray release. It really helps establish a model for how to handle films that are based on true events. All my earlier caveats about historical accuracy are largely addressed by the inclusion of such an intelligent roster of material. The picture-in-picture “Eyewitness Account,” in particular, helps deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the actual events by directly involving the people who were really there. In fact, five of the six “house guests” are on hand to share the details of their experience, along with none other than President Jimmy Carter (who also appears briefly via voiceover at the end of the movie itself).
A series of three short featurettes make for a more compact way to learn about the adaptation. Director Affleck and screenwriter Terrio contribute a forthcoming, informative commentary that makes clear just how seriously they tackled the job of turning a historical account into a tightly paced, two-hour movie. Just as valuable as any of these, the 46-minute 2005 documentary Escape from Iran: The Hollywood Option is included as a way to provide even more documentation from a historical perspective.
The bottom line is that if you don’t expect anything more than a fascinating story told with panache, Argo is great entertainment. It might not be one for the ages, but it does firmly establish Ben Affleck as a director to take seriously. Hopefully next time he digs a little deeper to find the relevance in the story he’s telling.