Friday, 22 March 2013

Argo (2012)

I don't believe there has been a film in my life that I have anticipated as highly as I anticipated Argo. Since I first saw a few columns about in last year in Empire, I was waiting for it to come out. When it came out, I pestered my friend Michael to come to the cinema with me to see it for weeks. When it went out of cinemas, having missed it, I felt defeated. Then I won an Amazon voucher at a Heriot-Watt University competition. With this voucher, I ordered, amongst other things, a DVD player and a DVD of Argo. During the period I waited for it to be released, Argo won Best Film and Best Director at the BAFTAs, and Best Picture at the Oscars. By this time, it was about six months since I first heard about it. My stomach was at my throat with expectation. I told myself that no matter what was on, I would watch Argo the night the DVD arrived. When it did, there was a geography exam the following day. Revision was pushed to second priority. Ben Affleck was first.

Let this be a lesson to you all. There was only one way this tale was ever going to end.

My version of the DVD seemed to have come from India or thereabouts, according to the messages before the film, and it took some fiddling about before I managed to turn off the subtitles that my DVD player seems so keen to put onto every film. The film begins with a disembodied voice (whose corresponding body isn't actually shown at any point in the movie) which narrates a short history of Iran and the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that smacks the plot on its way. It then starts where this narrative left off, with a crowd of angry people getting ticked off outside the US embassy in Tehran. As the crowd storms the building, only a group of six manage to escape out the back door to a mysteriously deserted back street and find solace in the Canadian ambassador's house. When the CIA back home in Washington, DC find out the situation, they know it's only a matter of time before the Iranians twig on and invade the Canadian's home.

Slag the ludicrous plot as heavily as you like, it all really happened. When the message 'some of the events in this film have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes' appears at the end of the credits, you do still wonder whether that includes a massive amount of the plot. Even I find it difficult to notice the differences in the Canadia and US American accents, never mind your average Tehranian. If they were so determined to find and kill six people who got away from the embassy, I wouldn't be surprised if they just pulled the trigger on anyone vaguely suspect. But there you go. A group from the CIA, led by the admirable Tony Mendez, really did go into Iran during a ferociously anti-American campaign posing as a Canadian film crew in order to rescue the six escapees. It happened. I can see why the film was already out within a couple of years of the previously top secret mission file being released. The supreme imagination of Mendez resulted in the full-scale production of a science fiction epic named Argo, with everyone from the actors to the production studios convinced that it actually existed.

Only Affleck, starring as Mendez, and his Hollywood-based cronies John Goodman and Alan Arkin know the entire this-message-will-self-destruct truth. It's these guys who are tasked with pulling off the entire charade convincingly, writing a script, hiring crew and persuading companies to invest in its success when the entire project relies on it ending as a damp squib. Goodman and Arkin really give Argo an ability to remain interesting and not become a generic historical action picture. Their characters shouldn't know how to react to such an absurd request, but they throw themselves into making it work. It is one of cinema's great injustices that John Goodman has never even been nominated for an Academy Award. He is brilliant. Ben Affleck has certainly moved into a new era since the Bay days of the 90s. While he may not come across as the obvious lead in the ensemble cast, permanently glum as he is, his talent is not to be sniffed at and he certainly shows much skill as a director.

The story of Argo was always aching to be made into a film. Thankfully, this manages to play down the potential Stars and Stripes Forever mood, thanking the Canadians more than anyone else for their help. The Americans are depicted as flawed and skeptical of the whole affair. This idea is carefully repented for, though, with suprise guest narrator Jimmy Carter giving his opinion on the mission over the credits, and a short, fascinating documentary on the real mission included on the DVD. This includes interviews with the people involved in the actual event over thirty years ago, including Jimmy and Tony Mendez himself, looking about as different to Ben Affleck as it is physically possible to be.

One day in the future, I will pick up my DVD of Argo, remember it not quite filling my expectations the first time round, and decide to give it a second chance. And I'll love it. For now, though, it was the unfortunate target of my relentless anticipation, and I can only blame myself for that.

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