Argo: A Review

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“If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”

It’s fitting that this quote would represent so well the true life account of the most outlandish CIA rescue mission in US history and so poorly the movie upon which it is based.

At this point in the Hollywood awards season Argo has won:

AFI Movie of the Year Award
Critic’s Choice Award (Best Picture, Best Director)
Golden Globe Award (Best Picture, Best Director)
Hollywood Film Award (Ensemble of the Year)
National Board of Review (Special Achievement in Film Making)
Screen Actor’s Guild Award (Best Motion Picture Cast)
Director’s Guild Award (Outstanding Directorial Achievement)

It has become the frontrunner to win the best picture Oscar, and has received dozens more regional awards and nominations.

The true life account of Argo sat on a shelf somewhere for almost 20 years before it was declassified by president Clinton in the late 90’s. And it wasn’t until the release of the Antonio Mendez’s book Argo: How the C.I.A. and Hollywood Pulled of the Most Audacious Rescue in History in Sept of 2011, that the general American public truly came to know this amazing story.

And it is amazing.

Argo is the story of a mission to rescue the 6 Americans who escaped the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1979. At the core of the story is a C.I.A. operative named Antonio Mendez (Ben Afleck) who is sent to get the Americans out. It soon becomes apparent, however, that no conventional rescue plan will suffice, which is where things get interesting. Mendez and his superior, Jack O’donnell (played by Bryan Cranston in top form) devise a scheme to get the 6 Americans out under the guise of being part of a Canadian film crew searching for exotic locations for their latest science fiction adventure story, Argo. And to make it believable, they enlist the help of two hollywood heavy-weights Lester Siegel (played by the deservedly Oscar nominated Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (portrayed by the ever enjoyable John Goodman) to create a real-life fake movie. Not the simplest and most subtle of ideas, but it’s “the best of the worst ideas” they had.

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The film is a dramatic retelling of everything from the storming of the Embassy to the debrief following the mission, and it is a thrill. As an actor, Ben Afleck does a decent job in the role of Mendez, he’s likable and calculating, two qualities that are not unimportant for the role. But as a director, Afleck is at the top of his game. He knows how to convey a story with precision and beauty. One thing that becomes apparent only as the credits role is the meticulous attention to the visual details of the story. pictures of the actors and their real life counterparts bring about double and triple takes. But more impressive than make-up and hair, is the obviously labor intensive work of recreating photographs of the events in celluloid form. Argo is stunning in subtlety and grand in gravity.

Argo is not an action film. In fact, much of the film takes place in small rooms with stationary people. But the film is nothing short of riveting. It’s reminiscent of the type of suspense created in a film like The King’s Speech, but the stakes are significantly greater and the activity level higher. The excitement of Argo rests in its excellent pace, its sense of immanent danger, and a near immediate connection with the central characters.

Much is due to Afleck’s confident hand at the helm, but there’s a reason why Argo keeps winning screenplay awards.Simply put, first-time screen writer Chris Terrio knocked it out of the park. Look for his name to appear more often in the coming years. It seems that Aaron Sorkin has some company in the deep-end of the words per-minute pool. Argo is anything but light on dialogue, but there is no place I can recall where exposition takes over story. I’ve yet to read Mendez’s book, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the adaptation, but I can say that regardless of adaptation, this is a stellar script.

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Culturally, Argo is a reminder of the sensitivity of international relations and the reality of how little the general public actually knows. We need both reminders as we consider how we speak of our government. We don’t know much of what goes on, yet we speak as though we’re experts. We’re not, most of us anyway. The majority of the American public has very little idea of why one president is more effective than another, or how governments relate to one another. Argo should be a wake up call toward a more humble and measured approach to criticizing “The Man”.

But I suppose it won’t be. We are so entrenched in the idea that we have a right to know all things, and that we can know all things. It’s ironic that in a world where absolute truth is frowned upon, absolute knowledge of facts is so highly regarded. God is denied because He is in many ways unknowable to us. Faith is disregarded as an inadequate replacement for “real” knowledge. But at the end of the day, we don’t actually know much of anything, whether it be the goings on of secret government organizations throughout the world, or the reason why our bodies function the way they do.

Being a Christian is being able to embrace mystery with confidence. Mystery is part of life. There are things we don’t know. Things we won’t ever know. And things that we wouldn’t understand even if we knew them. Once we can begin to think honestly about these realities, we’ll begin to understand how it’s possible for a loving God to require justice for sins committed against His holiness and how He could send His perfect Son as a willing sacrifice for those same sins that would have meant the eternal destruction of our souls. We’ll be able to believe that there is eternal existence just beyond what we can see and that Christ is the only true way through.

But if we can’t be ok with not knowing such small things like middle east rescue missions because we feel like our government is hiding stuff from us, we’ll have an impossible time searching deeper and more significant mysteries.

The Bottom Line

Argo is excellent and totally worth your time. It’s not for young children, but I would consider it worthy a conversation opportunity for older teenagers. On top of this, it’s an accurate portrayal of a recent and important historical event. It’s also coming out of DVD and Blu Ray in about two weeks. I recommend it, and hope it gets its due come Oscar night.

and though the quality isn’t the best, here’s a bit on Mendez himself:

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