There have been movies over the years that have been famously quoted "I'm Spartacus" from the 1960 Stanley Kubrick film stands out. "You complete me" uttered by Tom Cruise is another, as well as Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth," or "I wish I knew how to quit you" from Brokeback Mountain. There have been some movie quotes that have been highly charged like "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore," from Network (1976), which is actually partially spoken in this new Ben Affleck movie. Yet, if you look at AFI's Top 100 Movie Quotes, you won't find too many with curse words, aside from the # 1 movie quote, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," from Gone With the Wind. My hope, however, is AFI puts as a new # 1 movie quote the curse word-centered catchphrase from this one, "Argo f@$k yourself!"
Too bad, Affleck didn't write it. He does say it multiple times, but Affleck didn't write it. That honor goes to Chris Terrio who according to IMDB can count Argo as his first official screenplay. Based on the amazing article by Joshuah Bearman for Wired magazine in May 2007, Terrio's script tells the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA officer who in January 1980 rescued six Americans who became trapped in Iran in the wake of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis that saw 52 people from the American embassy in Tehran held for 444 days.
Affleck plays Mendez and we follow him, as he's briefed on the hostage situation, concocts a crazy plan and then executes that plan. Through superb acting, specifically from the six rescued, including Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishé, Christopher Denham, Rory Cochrane and Scoot McNairy, as well as Affleck's tight direction, this is an excellent thriller that creates a very tense feeling from beginning to end. It's very gripping.
Yet, that's all that it is. With the mobbing of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, both events on September 11, 2012, and both places a stone's throw from the Middle East, Argo is very topical and very timely, as another illustration of the uneasy relations between the U.S. and Islamic nations. While it's not the job or the responsibility of Affleck to do this, this film doesn't help to understand those uneasy relations. Listening to Affleck in interviews, it's clear that he himself understands those relations, but, for this film he uses a very base shorthand that for anyone who doesn't know the history only sees the brown people as bad and the white people as good. The brown people are the villains and the white people are the victims.
While I don't condone what the Muslim students did nor Khomeini's support of it, and what all the hostages experienced was horrible, I still must point out that all of this didn't happen in a vacuum. The Muslim students didn't do this because they were bored. Affleck's film mentions the 1953 coup that prompted all of this for the most part, but the film glosses over it. The United States in Operation Ajax aided an anti-democratic, military coup d'état that established an absolute monarchy controlled by the Shah.
This injustice is given lip service, but it's always kept at a distance so that the audience doesn't really feel it. The Iranians for the most part are portrayed as evil. Yes, there's a shot of a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tehran, showing the obvious infection of Western culture, particularly American culture, but immediately a shot of a man hanging in the middle of an open street is juxtaposed. With the six Americans in hiding, not unlike some Jewish people who did during World War II, the Iranians who go door to door searching might as well be the Gestapo.
No, I don't believe that Affleck thinks the Iranians in this situation are equal to the Nazis, but the cinematic shorthand here really doesn't give me much else to define the Iranians, beyond just angry, yelling mobs with no rationale or legitimate grievance. There's even a scene of a child sweat shop that the Iranians use to reconstruct shredded documents. Even if that were true, it just shows no balance and no real, concerted effort not to paint Iranians with a broad brush here.
It's not all bad though. The film does include an Iranian housekeeper who could have been a perfect conduit for providing balance. She's used effectively in the story, but it's too little to have a great enough impact to weigh the scales evenly. All that being said, the editing of this film did have a great enough impact. From the beginning, archival footage was weaved into the opening scene seamlessly. There's even one scene where Afffleck cuts to a shot of a telephone and then to a postcard that caused my eye to form a tear.
The movie has no over-the-top action, but through editing, the final sequence in the airport, which had people either standing or simply sitting and waiting, was just as heart-pounding as the majority of the action films released this year. I also love how Affleck and Terrio fuse and intermingle the CIA and Hollywood as two institutions not that dissimilar. It's not as evident in Argo, but if you look at a TV series like Homeland, with all of its surveillance cameras and acting that's done on behalf of its agents, a spy mission can very much seem like a Hollywood production.
Kudos to Affleck who I think is shaping up to be a better filmmaker than ever he was an actor! Kudos to great supporting performances from Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber and Kyle Chandler!
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and violent content.
Running Time: 2 hrs.