Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.
When the corrupt, much-loathed shah of Iran is taken in by the United States after his country revolts against him in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini, there is a riot at the US embassy and most of the staff is taken hostage. Six employees manage to escape to the Canadian ambassador’s house, and after a few months the CIA takes action to get them out. Exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) forms a daring plan to impersonate a Canadian movie crew scouting “exotic” locations for a fake Hollywood sci-fi flick, enlisting the aid of seasoned monster make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make it convincing. It’s a weird, dumb plan but we can assume it works somehow, otherwise why make a movie about it?
Argo reeled me in mostly due to its strange and interesting premise, a (mostly) true story I’d never heard of because, well, I’m an ignorant American with shaky grasp of Cold War history (we never seemed to make it past WWII in my history classes). I was most worried about how the Iranians might be portrayed in a movie fraught with actual racial and religious tensions, but Affleck does his best to be even-handed. The opening scenes laying out the poor treatment suffered by Iranian citizens at the hands of the opulent shah make their anger and desperation understandable, and various shots of them burning American flags are eventually paired with news clips of prejudiced Americans burning Iranian flags and even beating up a peaceful Iranian-American. They’re still the bad guys, but I kind of felt like everyone was an asshole on both sides, so that’s realistic.
For the most part Argo is a tense thriller with well-placed moments of levity and a number of digs at the Hollywood system. It is well aware of both how ludicrous its premise is as well as how real the people are, effectively communicating the danger of the situation and the fear of everyone involved. The cast is strong, with Affleck a little flat but ably leading a large number of charismatic and recognizable co-stars. I felt we didn’t really get to know the six “house guests” very well, but the actors all did their best to portray well-rounded characters with limited material (especially Clea DuVall, yay!). Obviously Goodman and Arkin steal the show with all their old-man, fuck-Hollywood banter, and they even get in on the nail-biting climactic escape. This movie is easy to like, distilling a complicated historical event into something exciting and dramatic- though notably downplaying Canada’s aid in the extraction. I pretty much dug it.
Pair This Movie With: Naturally John Goodman and movie satire had me thinking of Matinee, which I watched fairly recently. Both films also deal with real-life historical events through the eyes of the movie business.