Friday, June 19, 2015

Argo (Best Picture 2012)

Argo starts off with a bang, with the background story of the Shah of Iran told in photos and newsreel footage, but then morphing into storyboards as if we are making the story into a film. This tells us the story of Iran through the Fifties up to November 1979 in an interesting, fun way. You know right away that this is going to be an entertaining movie. You also get an inkling right off the bat that there is going to be a link between fact and fiction and Hollywood.

Argo is the story of how the CIA sent an agent to Iran to help six diplomats from the US Embassy get out of the  country safely. When the US Embassy was taken over, six staff members were in the Visa section, a separate area with access to the actual streets of Tehran (unlike the rest of the Embassy, which was surrounded by walls). These diplomats saw the attack and walked out the back door. They asked for asylum from several other embassies before the Canadian Ambassador ended up hiding them in his residence. When the rest of the staff of the US Embassy were taken hostage, these six diplomats lived in constant fear of being found and executed by the Iranian government.

Back in the United States, the State Department is trying to come up with a plan to get the six out. Tony, played by Ben Affleck, is a CIA operative who accidentally comes across a scene from The Planet of The Apes films that changes his life. This film reminds him of a make-up artist in Hollywood who is on the CIA payroll. Tony talks to the man, played by John Goodman, about the idea of creating a "story" about a Canadian film crew scouting locations in the Middle East. They think it might work. In Hollywood, Tony meets with a super-producer, played by Alan Arkin, and together the three of them decide to use a crappy script for a film called "Argo." This part of the film seems to be a satire on the way things are done in Hollywood, with digs at agents, producers, executives, and actors.

The three men stage an open script reading for "Argo," and the press in Hollywood does the work for them by publicizing it all over the country. Tony reports to his superiors, and they get approval from President Jimmy Carter himself to attempt the rescue operation.

Before leaving on his mission, Tony tries to call and talk to his son. Unfortunately, they don't connect, and he has to send him a post card instead. He believes that this may be a suicide mission, and he wants his son to think well of him.

Tony flies to Turkey, and from there to Iran. He swipes extra entry visas from the Iranian airport as he is entering. When he finally gets to the Canadian Ambassador's residence, however, the six diplomats do not trust him. They think the cover story of a film crew is stupid, and some of them simply refuse to participate. Tony sits them down and clearly and truthfully tells them who he is and what he does for a living. He reminds them that he, too, is at risk, and that he needs their cooperation. He asks them to trust him.

The next day, the seven "members of the film crew" walk around the city to visit locales for their cover story. There is a tension in this section that is almost unbearable. Spies are taking photos of them, comparing these photos to known US Embassy employees, hoping to find someone they did not catch in the Embassy siege. The crowds make the diplomats nervous, and there is a sense of foreboding hanging over the entire proceedings.

That night, Tony is contacted and told to abort the mission. He refuses, telling his superior (an effective Bryan Cranston) that he will not leave these six innocent people to hang. So Cranston rushes through the bureaucratic hoops, barging in on the Chief of Staff to talk to the President himself in order to re-authorize the mission. The group's airline tickets are cleared for them just in time.

After the group is at the airport, the tension in the film goes a bit overboard. Because the diplomats have left the Ambassador's residence, the police break in to that home and realize that something has been going on. The Ambassador, his wife, and their maid have all escaped. Meanwhile, the photo of one of "the film crew" matches one of the US embassy employees. And the airport security at immigration calls the phone number in Hollywood to verify the story of "Argo," but Goodman and Arkin are detained on another set, so unable to answer the phone. It's all a bit much. Finally, the diplomat who did not want to trust Tony in the first place speaks up, showing the immigration guards the storyboards and scripts. He impresses all of them with his knowledge of the film, so the guards let them all board their airplane. With one last moment of tension, the group manages to fly off to freedom. Canada gets all of the attention and praise (or blame, from Iran). Tony saves one storyboard and gives it to his son.

So as a film, Argo is fantastic. It is fast-paced, tense, and well acted. It is a greatly entertaining motion picture. a record of what actually's off. For one thing, the entire security sequence at the airport as portrayed in the film did not actually happen. No guards, no jeeps, no tickets just barely getting cleared....none of that. It's all made up for the movie. Similarly, the spotlight in this film IS on the CIA, but in reality the logistics were mostly worked out by the Canadian government and their Ambassador (a very good, subdued Victor Garber). British and New Zealand diplomats also helped the US Embassy staff, but their roles were ignored completely in the film. So...several years from now, when this is the only version of the story people actually remember and cite, they will have the facts wrong. Thanks *again*, Hollywood. And this time the difference between the truth and the half-truths slash lies is especially disturbing, because there is so much time and effort given to the appearance of truth. For example, the end credits roll over parallel comparisons between the true-life characters, such as the Canadian Ambassador, on the left and the actors who portrayed them on the right, such as Victor Garber.  What other conclusion are we to draw from this other than, "Oh, look, this is a true story!" And the film even features some final comments from President Jimmy Carter regarding the rescue mission. And yet, the last half hour or so of this film is pure fiction. How much less "truthful" can a "based on a true story" be?
Argo was the subject of quite a lot of talk at the Academy Awards because it is the rare Best Picture winner to not have its director be nominated for Best Director. This is only the fourth time in 80 plus years for that to happen. The Academy seemed to not care for Ben Affleck as director. Argo was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won three; Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 2012*
Produced by Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney
Directed by Ben Affleck
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Based on a chapter from the book
The Master of Disguise by Antonio V. Mendez
and on the WIRED magazine article
"The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman

"I think my little story is the only thing between you and a gun to your head."

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
This is another year where I saw almost none of the nominees. I think the Academy wanted to make the Best Picture race more interesting, but doubling the number of nominees makes it less interesting to me, not more. My wife and I saw Silver Linings Playbook, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. They were both nominated; she won Best Actress. My sister swears Life of Pi was fantastic (Ang Lee won another Best Director for the film), but I didn't want to spend two hours watching a computer graphic tiger. My wife watched Les Miserables, but I had no interest in it. Anne Hathaway won Best Supporting Actress for her role in it. My nephew swears Django Unchained is fantastic, but he is a huge Quentin Tarentino fan. I feel like I've seen the same Tarentino film over and over again, but maybe I should give this a look. Tarentino won Best Original Screenplay, and Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor. When my wife and I finally saw Lincoln she fell asleep, and I thought it was the grayest color film I had ever seen. Daniel Day-Lewis became the only man to win Best Actor three times (all others have only one or two). I had not liked The Hurt Locker, so I wasn't interested in seeing the same team do Zero Dark Thirty. Amour was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. Its actress, Emmanuelle Riva, was the oldest woman (85) to be nominated for Best Actress. And that allows me to segue into Beasts of the Southern Wild, because its actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, at age 9, was the youngest to ever be nominated for Best Actress. As mentioned earlier, Jennifer Lawrence actually won.

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