Regardless of personal taste, there's no denying the market is consistently flooded with an insufferable amount of crap. Every year, studios show off their shallow shells of CGI driven entertainment, and every year I find myself avoiding the sanctuary of my local movie house that much more. There's nothing wrong with pointless spectacle, but I can wait to enjoy such frivolity from the comfort of my living room. When I pay premium prices to watch something on the big screen, I want something more - I want to be engaged emotionally and intellectually. In most cases, this can't be done in the absence of compelling characters and/or a decent plot, and sadly as time goes on, mainstream cinema is defined less and less by these vital characteristics. I mean, I respect plenty of directors despite their hit-or-miss track records, but the one I've cautiously begun to rely on is Ben Affleck, as he's delivered a couple of films that continue to resonate with me to this day. I'm still haunted by the broken dynamics of justice and morality as presented in Gone Baby Gone, and despite embracing a handful of clichés, The Town is the most intense crime-drama to come along since The Departed. Of course, two films aren't enough to profess my love for any filmmaker, but it's fair to say I'm more excited to see a Ben Affleck film than anything else nowadays. With Argo now also able to be taken into consideration, my cautionary approach to him is solidifying into assuredness.
So, why did Ben Affleck choose to step away from a Boston setting and tackle this? Well, one reason is that he didn't want to pigeonhole himself as a filmmaker who couldn't broaden his scope, and this particular story allowed him to flex his muscles and challenge his directorial abilities. Second and most certainly not least, these inspiring true events already sound like they were lifted directly from a major motion picture... so why not make a film about it?
Although the world was already familiar with the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, a better understanding of our involvement was only revealed when, in 1997, Bill Clinton declassified a series of documents that detailed an operation that was hidden from the public eye. As tensions were boiling over in Tehran, the walls of our U.S. embassy were breached and hostages were taken. However, 6 diplomats escaped through a back exit and were eventually taken in by Canadian ambassadors. A substantial risk considering it was only a matter of time before the Iranian government would discover their absence and initiate a vengeful strike that would claim their lives. Under pressure of a ticking clock, the CIA throws up a bunch of ideas that might bring their diplomats home, but none are plausible enough to stick. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) finally devises a concept that's so risky it just might be crazy enough to work - He would fly into Iran under cover as a Canadian filmmaker that's scouting exotic locations. Mendez would then rendezvous with the diplomats and assign them new identities as his crew, and hopefully fly them out to safety before the Iranian government has a chance to catch on.
Such a simple synopsis might mislead you into thinking that this is more or less what Affleck had already accomplished with The Town, as it focused squarely on an expert strategist who made his living by blending in, ultimately extracting the goods and walking away unscathed. I mean, where's the challenge in accomplishing something you've already done, right? For me, the answer lies within the shift of dynamics - Whereas The Town focuses more on complex character relationships, Argo's complexity is purely situational. In order to make the fake film façade real enough to provide adequate cover, Mendez is tasked with nothing short of fooling the world. That means while he's on the ground in Iran, he has to rely on cooperation from the Canadian government and respected Hollywood filmmakers, not to mention reliance on the tabloids running with their fake press release. Even then, the Iranian government is doing whatever it can behind-the-scenes to expose the hostages for who they are, so they can be found and exterminated. With so many parts to juggle, most directors would likely turn these (mostly) true to life events into a three hour opus, but Affleck? One of his greatest strengths as a director thus far has been his ability to keep things lean and mean, and at 120 minutes, Argo is no different in this respect. No, Affleck delivers a carefully paced effort with ever-mounting tension, which despite knowing the outcome, will leave you on the edge of your seat biting your nails.
That's not to say that Argo is a perfect film though. It's not, and it's the dramatic embellishments that keep this from being the flawless masterpiece it could have been. Don't get me wrong - I have no problem when a director adds a little spice for dramatic effect, especially when they're so forthcoming about it. Affleck himself has made one thing perfectly clear - He wanted to make a drama. Not a documentary, docu-drama or anything in between. He wanted to wow his audience with dramatic thrills and chills, and there's no denying he delivers that experience and then some. My problem is mostly with the final act, as it's laden with every 'escape the airport' cliché you can think of. Thankfully, Affleck's direction is so airtight that every moment continues being more suspenseful than the last, but it would have been nice if the finale wasn't so predictable. And although this may be the director's finest piece from a directorial/technical standpoint, character development comes off weak. I never really cared about the hostages on a personal level, and this lack of interest even carried over to Tony Mendez. Many critics have already gone on record to state that the double-duty actor-director should have considered someone else for the role - due in part to Mendez being part Mexican in real life - but that's an unfair, if not nitpicky assessment.
The bottom line is this - Affleck just wasn't right as Mendez. As a matter of fact, if I actually had to pick a single overall low point of the film, it would be his portrayal of the now famed CIA operative, and here's why - Mendez was meant to be 'John Everyman', so a reserved performance was required to keep him from becoming over sensationalized. Affleck is so reserved however, his understated performance falls short of the bar. That being said, there's a trade-off for keeping character development to a bare minimum - If the background of each character was endlessly explored, the film's palpable tension would have been decimated. Regardless of Affleck's intention, Argo doesn't come off as a character study piece anyway; it's more or less a snapshot in time, when the planet aligned and allowed the improbable to become possible. More than that, it stands as a beacon of hope - In a world that's seemingly more divisive by the day, it's refreshing to see a story, based on true events no less, where real world entities came together and put everything on the line for the greater good.
After all is said and done though, these minor complaints are completely forgivable. The dramatic embellishments do keep things interesting, and since the film's context is more situational than anything else, it doesn't matter if Affleck appears 'too cool' throughout such a harrowing experience. It's the fantastic script and direction which make Argo the slow burning thrill ride it is, and the supporting cast - John Goodman as John Chambers (make-up artist), Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell (Mendez's CIA Supervisor), and especially Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel (film producer) - are all terrific and hit their mark exactly as intended. But let's answer the questions most of you undoubtedly have at this point (especially if you haven't seen the film):
Is Argo being overhyped by the masses, and should Affleck have been given a nod for Best Director at the 2013 Academy Awards?
Argo isn't being overhyped at all. It really deserves all of the critical praise it's received (although some reviewers have gone overboard in refusing to find any faults), and to think that this is only the third film Affleck has directed for the masses makes his accomplishment stand out that much more. He is a master at his craft behind-the-camera, and I think we've finally reached the point where that should no longer be questioned, regardless of what the 'powers that be' have to say about it. As far as being the best film of 2012? All I can say is that it's definitely up there as one of the top contenders. I was pleasantly surprised by a few films within the last year, and it's hard to put Argo head-to-head with them since they're all so different from one another. Still, it feels like a form of cruel injustice for Affleck to have been left out of the running completely. But, hey - It matters little what the Academy thinks. Critics and filmgoers alike have made their opinions known time and time again with all three of his films, and I happen to side with the majority - Affleck is the director to keep an eye on. If you haven't seen Argo yet, or any Ben Affleck directed films for that matter, then you owe it to yourself to see what's undoubtedly one of 2012's finest.
It's not the prettiest looking film I've ever seen, but the artistic intent has been flawlessly preserved in this 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (2.40:1). Old (real) news footage is interwoven throughout, maintaining their ugly look and aspect ratio. Affleck has also opted to use different film stock depending on the tone he was trying to convey, and although this had the potential to be problematic on a mishandled encode, film grain has been left untouched by the likes of DNR, and always appears natural rather than noisy. Black levels and contrast are solid throughout, as no details are crushed into oblivion or bloomed into obscurity. The film isn't exactly colorful - although it has its moments - but the desaturated color scheme goes a long way in making the film appear fresh, yet nostalgic all at the same time. As far as detail is concerned, everything looks immaculate - Edges are well defined without the 'help' of any digital enhancement, and textures on skin and clothing are practically lifelike. There's no artifacting or banding in sight, making Argo's Blu-ray presentation an accurate representation of the source. Some may not consider this to be reference quality, but if your definition of 'reference' means having a pristine presentation of the source, then this release will undoubtedly leave you marveling at all of the careful artistic decisions Affleck has made along the way.
Argo isn't exactly an action film, so I wasn't sure what to expect out of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Well, a lot of care and attention to detail was paid to the mix, because it's far more enveloping and powerful than I had anticipated. Riotous crowds will make you feel surrounded, open marketplace settings will carry you through the hustle and bustle, and pinpoint precise gunfire from the outside world will make you feel just as trapped as the hostages awaiting their fate in the Canadian embassy. Environmental ambience is always going to put you in the thick of things and the score will heighten your engagement. The LFE was quite the surprise as well - It gives quite a kick when applicable, but is never overstated enough to feel unbalanced within the mix. The name of the game is 'realism', and Argo is one of the more finely tuned surround tracks I've heard in quite some time.
-Picture in Picture - Eyewitness Account - Wow, now this is how you go all out for a drama based on real events. Selecting this option from the list of supplements will allow you to watch Argo with interviews from Antonio Mendez, President Jimmy Carter, Bob Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Kathy Stafford, Lee Schatz, and Al Golacinksi. They all provide their first-hand accounts of the events depicted throughout the film, making this one of the most interesting historical supplements ever to accompany a 'period piece' film.
-Audio Commentary with Director Ben Affleck and Writer Chris Terrio - Ben Affleck pays attention to every detail imaginable while neck-deep in one of his projects, and this commentary goes a long way in proving that. He and Writer Chris Terrio cover every aspect about Argo imaginable - They discuss storyboard framing, actual historical events as they were versus how they were depicted in the film, how they came to their decisions in casting. There's also a lot of technical talk about how the film's look and tone was achieved, and although the discussions themselves aren't the most entertaining to listen to, they present the info in a way that won't float over everyone's head. If you want a couple of guys sitting around, having a good time, this probably won't be your bag, but anyone interested in all the ins and outs about a film's production need look no further.
-Rescued From Tehran - We Were There - If you're not one to sit through commentaries or picture-in-picture tracks, then this 17 minute featurette shouldn't be missed. It features the actual hostages/houseguests and President Jimmy Carter, detailing real-life events as they remember them.
-Absolute Authenticity - This featurette, 11 minutes, details the painstaking lengths Affleck we to so he could effectively transport us back in time to this particular period.
-The C.I.A. and Hollywood Connection - This 6 minute featurette really doesn't amount to much. Its intent is to detail the relationship our government has with Hollywood, but a lot of film snippets are used to piece it all together.
-Escape from Iran - The Hollywood Option - The only standard definition supplement on the disc, this 47 minute documentary from 2005 details the actual "Canadian Caper", through startling interviews with the American diplomats, the Canadian ambassadors, and more. For those who want to differentiate real life events with the embellishments taken with the film, watching this is strongly recommended. Its historical value alone is well worth the watch.
All in all, this is about as impressive a supplemental package for Argo can get. We have all the information we need on the film's production as well as the factual history that inspired it, and there's really nothing here I would say is frivolous or acts as shameless self-promotion.
Brilliantly paced and masterfully executed, Argo is the most thrilling film to come along since... well, Affleck's previous effort The Town. Based on real life events, Affleck has gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the era so we can be flies on the wall, allowing us to feel the hopelessness and dread encountered by everyone involved (or, at least as much as a feature film can allow us to). Right from the beginning, we're hit with an intense opening act, and the tension only continues to swell until you can't help but sit on the edge of your seat. Argo does have its flaws (hint - Affleck should get out of the habit of using himself in starring roles if he doesn't fit the bill), but they never really detract from an experience that's, otherwise, expertly crafted from beginning to end. As far as the Blu-ray's technical presentation, it's nothing short of stunning, and the supplemental material hits a mark that most other releases could only wish to achieve, and it does so without being exhaustive. Highly Recommended.