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A r g o
Here’s the kind of movie that makes movie-watching worth its while.
“Based on a true story.” That ubiquitous line from many a movie’s beginning never sounded truer or more authentic than from Argo (2012). If you don’t know the political history behind Argo, you’ll be transfixed by its story – it plays out like a top-class, ‘race-against-time’ spy thriller that keeps you on the edge. If you do know the history, its story may not keep you chewing your fingernails but its storytelling certainly will. Either way, with the sheer incredulity of its central plot, the movie leaves you in trickles of cold sweat. Especially because, the feeling of “It-actually-happened-30-years-back” repeatedly sinks in at regular intervals…
Argo is the dramatization of ‘Canadian Caper’, the popular name for CIA’s joint, covert espionage operation with the Canadian government to exfiltrate six US embassy staffers from Iran during the infamous hostage crisis in 1979-80. While more than fifty staff members from the American embassy were taken hostage by students and supporters of the Iranian Revolution, these six staffers managed to escape and were sheltered by the Canadian ambassador in his house in Tehran. As soon as the US knew about the six that had escaped, it decided to rescue and get them out of Iran ASAP. The government considered many ‘exfil’ options that would avoid the hawk-like attention of the Iranian revolutionary guards, but rejected them all because of the high risk. Finally, Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, came up with a cock-and-bull deception scheme of ferreting out the six diplomats from Iran by passing them off as a fake Canadian film crew that had purportedly come to Iran to scout for a location for a sci-fi movie named Argo. You would think it was a big surprise that the scheme succeeded in spite of its cockamamie nature, but maybe it did because of that!
This movie’s USP is clearly about authenticity – the eye for detail in it is stunning. Its art direction recreates the late 70s, early 80s so perfectly that you completely lose sense that it was made just last year. The Tehran of the 70s that is shown in the movie was replicated on a set in a location somewhere in Turkey for the movie. As the movie intercuts actual historical video footage from Tehran and the US at many places, you realize how truthful the replication is. Not only that, as you watch the movie, you feel as if it was filmed in the 70s or 80s, thanks to the deliberate graininess of the picture on screen and the colors of the camera lenses that are used. Why that, the makers have even gone to the extent of using the production house, Warner Brothers’ old logo of the 70s in the film’s beginning credits !
To be sure, the events in real-life thirty years ago may have played out relatively easier than the ‘just-in-time’, quick-paced dramatized sequences in the film, but then you’ve got to give its makers that cinematic license to keep the onscreen proceedings from getting dull. Notwithstanding that, much of the credit for the movie’s authenticity should deservedly go to its young director, Ben Affleck, whose career behind the camera has been a fascinating one to watch. Even as a young writer at twenty-five, when most writers dabble in light stuff, Affleck had already co-written a mature but brilliant original screenplay for Goodwill Hunting (1997) along with another young talent, Matt Damon. From thereon, he only got better with his directorial debut that created the finely-nuanced, well-layered drama Gone Baby Gone (2007) about five years back. And then, a couple of years later, he followed it up with directing The Town (2010), which was clearly several notches above most cops-chase-robbers flicks, but made some compromises for the box-office to stop short of being great. Now with Argo, Affleck, at just age forty, can clearly boast of having earned an admission to the club of big league directors such as Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Scorsese.
And then, there’s the scintillating storytelling in the movie…Firstly, in terms of its acting performance, it’s a triumph for its ensemble. This is the kind of movie in which individual performances should not overshadow one another; the entire group has to perform like a well-oiled machine. With that mind, Affleck, in a remarkably quiet manner, underplays himself in the main role of the CIA agent, Tony Mendez, and makes sure that the group’s acting as a whole is never undermined. In playing that role, Affleck also pulls off the difficult double-act of directing the movie as well as playing the lead actor in it. Next is the way in which humor is used in the movie. It’s never easy to introduce humor into a storyline that’s otherwise so serious and tense, without it sticking out like a sore thumb. By getting the two Hollywood characters (played effortlessly by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to raise the laughs, the narrative isolates it from the serious action happening in Tehran, and provides some relief from the tension it creates.
Lastly, the quality of storytelling in the movie is enhanced by the way it is paced and edited. Editing is one of those technical aspects of filmmaking that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, even though it is that very aspect which decides how a movie finally appears on screen as we see it. It’s so crucial that a badly edited motion picture can ruin the best of stories or narratives…With easily one of the best film-editing efforts in recent times, William Goldenberg, Argo’s richly deserving winner of the 2012 Oscar for Best Editing, keeps the story tight and compelling by dicing and splicing the three parallel narratives happening in Tehran, Washington DC, and Los Angeles in the most absorbing manner.
At the end, as the movie credits start rolling, Argo’s story compels you to be struck by the US’s commitment to put the entire weight of its hefty government to get just six of its own citizens out of harm’s way. At the same time, Argo’s history jolts you to think hard why the United States’ foreign policy of the last seven decades has consistently followed a trajectory of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, tragically to the detriment of millions of their peace-loving citizens. Whether you commend the commitment or condemn the meddling will depend on whether your politics is dictated by nationalism or internationalism. Either way, you’re likely to be filled with an eerie fascination for both those facets of this country’s irrefutable geopolitical reality…
Did someone say integrity and indifference cannot coexist in one entity?