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Argo (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Argo succeeds quite well as an action-suspense film, with excellent storytelling and filmcraft. Beyond that, it admirably touches on issues of trust, loyalty, and the difficulty of diplomatic calculations during an international crisis. Although the film’s overall story arch is reasonably accurate, it makes multiple dramatic departures from the events as they happened. This diminishes Argo’s importance as a dramatic rendering of USA history, but nonetheless, the added drama tends to give voice to the no doubt real tension of the mission.

In 1979, the USA granted asylum to Iran’s deposed Shah, who had raised the ire of the Iranian people with his extravagant lifestyle and initiatives to westernize Iran. Outside the US embassy in Tehran, students in the streets demanded that the Shah be returned to Iran. The students’ frustration grew until they overran the wall and invaded the embassy. This was the start of 444 days in captivity for 52 people in the embassy (66 were originally taken hostage, but 14 were released earlier than the rest), but six people escaped and took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Fearing that the Iranians would learn of the six and pursue them, the CIA worked with Canada to create a plan of rescue, led by CIA operative Tony Mendez. Running time: 120 min.

As an action-suspense film, Argo embodies well the tension and fear in life-threatening conflict, giving good occasion for us feel something of how we (think we) would fare in dangerous times. Would we act with courage and coolness and strength? Would we fall apart? Would we be clever or na├»ve in our responses? The personal context the film provides for some of the characters animates other questions including: Finding ourselves in a dangerous time, what second-guessing and regret is appropriate as to whether we might have avoided it? For what are we willing to risk our lives — in both the final sense and in the sense of comfort and stability?

The film’s political context brings out questions about the difficulties of diplomatic calculations in the midst of international conflict, particularly how such calculations must take on the morally ambiguous task of factoring human lives into the calculation. In the midst of military action, some people can see only the lives lost as a direct result of the action, unable (or unwilling) to recognize that, in some decisions to act, the question is not whether lives will be lost or not, but rather how many lives will be lost if we act versus how many lives will be lost if we do not act. Although Argo does not center on a question of military action, its diplomatic calculations touch on this difficulty and are further complicated by considerations of a course of action's possible impact to international reputation — i.e., future ability to influence the world for good or ill.

Argo's filmcraft is very good, but it could have been better. It opens with what is perhaps the best short segment of historical context that I've seen, which immediately deepens the emotional impact when the film proper starts with the crowd in front of the US embassy. The plot maintains a consistent level of suspense, but that is where it could be stronger. The filmmakers invented scenes specifically for suspenseful dramatic effect, which is a bit of a crutch compared to a superior filmcraft that could have, without the fictional scenes, brought out the inner tension that the real life characters likely felt. Nevertheless, the film's acting, its pacing, and camera work are all strong. In its favor on the true-to-history front, at least some scenes are taken directly from historical photos, and the actors playing the houseguests were chosen for their facial likeness to the real people.

Though it would be more worth seeing had the filmmakers chosen the harder road without the dramatic embellishments, you won't waste your time seeing Argo.

For the most part, the film is tense and strong language is common. The tensity is punctuated by mob scenes, brief violence, a short sequence or two with blood, and the aftermath of a public hanging.

  • Director: Ben Affleck
  • Screenplay: Chris Terrio, based on an article in Wired by Joshuah Bearman
  • Leads: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
  • Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
  • Music: Alexandre Desplat

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NOTE: Although Before viewing talks don't have spoilers, comments below MAY have spoilers
(spoilers are allowed in comments when a Before viewing talk does not have a corresponding After viewing talk for discussing the film)

2 Responses to “Argo”

  1. […] up several others that are being talked about as Oscar contenders including Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, Argo, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook. Other good links at Pierced to the […]

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