Review by Gordon Justesen
Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Director: Ben Affleck
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 120 Minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2013
“The whole country is watching you. They just don’t know it.”
Any film that can illustrate how movies can save lives is instantly a winner in my book. And that’s just one of many masterstrokes on display in Ben Affleck’s magnificent film, Argo. The film also happens to be darkly comic, incredibly intense, a superb period piece and one of the most all-around brilliantly crafted films of recent memory.
The events depicted in the film took place the year I was born, and the true story remained classified until the late 90s. So it’s very thrilling to see a film depicting a historical event that I, and am sure many others, didn’t know the outcome of. That adds an even more potent effect to Affleck’s film, which indeed had me on the edge of my seat in its climatic moments.
In November, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, resulting in 50 Americans taken as hostages. In the midst of all the madness, which Affleck captures astonishingly in one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen, six diplomats manage to escape and take refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Though safe at the moment, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian forces target their location, once it becomes clear to them that half a dozen of their take are missing.
With Washington doing everything they can to negotiate the release of all the hostages, the State Department is focusing on what can be done to get the six diplomats out of harm’s way. With time running out, the CIA is quick to call in Tony Mendez (Affleck), an expert in extracting people out of dangerous settings. Since it’s flat out impossible to sneak anyone over the Iranian border without getting spotted, the only logical way to pull off the task is to issue false identities and exit the country via a commercial flight.
But how exactly to pull it off? After hearing all of the proposed rescue actions, Tony says none of them will work due to the simple fact that there are few explanations as to why Westerners would be in Tehran at this point. However, Tony gets an idea while catching a viewing of a Planet of the Apes movie on TV.
The plan is to organize a fake movie shoot for a science fiction production, and pass the six diplomats off as a Canadian film crew who are scouting for locations in Iran. Since the film is intended as a Star Wars knock off, such desert landscapes would be fitting for such a production. Before long, Tony is put into contact with John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood makeup artist, who then contacts his longtime producing partner, Lester Siegel (the always remarkable Alan Arkin), and the three then go to work.
It is at this point when Argo flawlessly enters a whole other world, that of Hollywood, with Tony passing himself off as the bankroll behind the movie, while Lester does the pitching work to the studios. Before long, they are at Sci-fi conventions to attract acting talent for their “fake” screenplay, entitled “Argo”. And Lester ushers the most brilliant gesture by having the media write up about the production in the trade papers.
And such a gesture is perfectly mirrored by the Iranian revolutionaries. They, too, are using the media as a way to get their message across. Speeches are made and caught on camera and shown on the news daily. This is something I didn’t catch on until my second viewing of the film, and it reveals another strength on Affleck’s part in showing the link the two sides have regarding the use of the media.
With the plan set in motion, Tony is soon on a flight to Tehran to meet the six people he vows to return safely to American soil. And after coaching them to slip believably into their roles as production crew members, in addition to taking them out for production scouting in the middle of Tehran which becomes a huge close call, Tony proceeds to take them to the airport and get them out safely. But given that the six diplomats are scared beyond belief, the plan could still come crashing down at any moment.
Having always defended him when the rest of the world wanted nothing more than to constantly shoot him down, it’s been nothing short of thrilling to see Ben Affleck establish himself as a filmmaker of the highest order and receive the enormous acclaim he very much deserves. And with only three directorial efforts to his name, the first two being the equally terrific Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck has already attained a Scorsese-like talent. I can’t wait to see what he delivers next behind the camera…but for now, Argo is Affleck’s reigning masterpiece!
The film carries a bold, gritty look to it, and this Blu-ray release from Warner preserves the very old school feel that Affleck was clearly going for. The desaturated color scheme works incredibly for this film, especially for its time period. Leaving grain in tact, and used to natural effect, also helps this presentation tremendously. Image detail is also at a top notch level, as are black levels and skin textures! The colorful shots set around Hollywood shine the best!
You wouldn’t look at this film and immediately expect such a tremendous sounding release, but this film is nominated for Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing for a reason, and the DTS HD mix perfectly illustrates it. For starters, the opening sequence detailing the storming of the U.S. Embassy is a show stopping moment in terms of surround sound use. And though not an action packed movie, the film is nonetheless given plenty to benefit from, sound-wise, thanks to sequences set in heavily crowded areas, a soundtrack with some nice rockin' tunes from the time period, and moments of tension that are made even more nail-biting by the sound delivery. Balance between those elements and dialogue delivery are handled brilliantly as well!
As far as extras go, this is by far the best Blu-ray release from Warner in a LONG time! I was beginning to worry that extras of this level were a thing of a past on Warner titles, but this release has helped to restore my faith. First off, we have a fantastic Picture-in-Picture presentation titled “Eyewitness Account”, in which we get reflections from the real Tony Mendez, as well as President Jimmy Carter and the six people who lived to tell the tale (Bob Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Kathy Stafford, Lee Schatz, and Al Golacinksi). A film like this deserves such an in-depth and revealing PIP feature, and it’s simply a fascinating view!) There’s also a commentary track with Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, and additional featurettes including “Rescued From Tehran: We Were There”, “Argo: Absolute Authenticity”, “Argo: The CIA and Hollywood Connection” and “Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option”, the last of which is a stirring, close to 50-minute documentary from 2005 detailing the rescue mission.
Argo looks as though it might be the top contender to win Best Picture, and it completely deserves it! Ben Affleck, who was unfairly shafted in the Best Director category, has crafted a brilliantly layered film that is engaging and thoroughly gripping in a way that few films are capable of being. And the Blu-ray from Warner is already a contender for one of the best all around releases of 2013!