Sunday, November 18, 2012

Argo (2012) ***

Eight bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!  The crowd-pleasing Oscar-bait that is “Argo” is a thrill to watch, and it cements Ben Affleck’s reputation as a filmmaker.
In case you haven’t heard, “Argo” is based on the events of 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran, starting the Iran Hostage Crisis.  A few Americans slipped out while the takeover was occurring, and they hid out for over a month in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  They lived in constant fear of being discovered until CIA agent Tony Mendez, with considerable help from the Canadians, appeared to sneak them out of the country using an elaborate cover story about being a Canadian film crew.
At the time, the return of the six Americans was celebrated with many thanks to our friends in Canada, but the details of the operation, including the involvement of the CIA, were classified for over two decades.  Once it was finally declassified, under Bill Clinton, the made-for-Hollywood saga was detailed in a book by Tony Mendez, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
That’s the mythology, anyway.  I was interested to learn that the escapade was first portrayed in a 1981 TV movie, “Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper.”  Just from the titles you can see the difference in emphasis between the two versions of the story.  Presumably, the TV movie didn’t include the involvement of the CIA, which would still have been classified at that time.  Many critics today feel that “Argo” overstates the role of the CIA at the expense of the Canadians, making Canada look like a passive partner.  Britain and New Zealand also receive short shrift, with “Argo” portraying their embassies as refusing to shelter the six Americans, when in fact both countries did what they could to help.  As long as we are on the subject of inaccuracies, the film presents a decidedly one-sided version of Iranian history.  I’m no expert on Iran, but I detect a strong leftist slant in the depiction of the Shah of Iran and America’s support of him.  
This is one of the problems with movies based on historical events.  The filmmakers inevitably take dramatic license, and that dramatized version of the story inevitably enters the public consciousness as a part of history.  The farther out I get from “Argo,” the more those inaccuracies bother me.
I didn’t know any of that while watching it, however, I was just 100% entertained.  It’s amazing how much tension Affleck is able to maintain, considering that the outcome of the story is already a matter of public record.  Affleck also has a commanding screen presence.  Technically, the film is perfect.  The actors playing the hiding Americans are excellent, and the pacing of the story is right on.   I just think maybe Affleck, and maybe Hollywood in general, should stick to making stories up, rather than twisting historical events.

3 stars out of 5

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