Monday, March 11, 2013

DVD of the Week: Argo

When we got the envelope from lovefilm this week it had in it the Total Recall remake, and Z waved it at my accusingly. "What the hell did we rent this for?" she cried. "I don't remember adding it!" was the best excuse I could come up with, because I didn't; I can only guess that I got a little click happy on one of my sprees of adding to the films list. We ended up watching Total Remake on Saturday afternoon, figuring it's 12A rating would make it fine for Ewan to watch, and mostly it was, although the 3-breasted woman was, perhaps, inappropriate for the rating. Total Remake is a wholly unremarkable, pedestrian film with the odd flash of wanting to be moodier and clever but without any real clue how to manage that in between action sequences that you've seen a dozen times before. Thankfully, that evening, we got to watch Argo, and the weekend's viewing was saved. 

Argo starts with a narrated series of storyboards that give a potted history of the Iranian Revolution, taking in the overthrow the democratically elected government and the imposition of the Shah, backed the Britain and the US, and setting the scene for events that took place over 30 years ago. Its an interesting and bold choice to try and put the film into a historical context, establish why there was so much anti-US feeling, and try and frame the presentation of Tehran's febrile and violent streets with a little more balance. Its a well the film goes back to several times, referencing the US sheltering of the aging, cancer-ridden Shah, the crimes of his secret police and the decadence of his regime as a counterpoint to the looming threat against the American citizens the film focuses upon. 

So, Argo tells the story of 6 workers at the US Embassy in Tehran, who escaped to the Canadian Ambassadors residency when the Embassy was stormed in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, and it's staff held as hostages in order to try and force the US to hand over the deposed ruler. The US State Department and CIA concoct a scheme - the "Best Bad Idea" they have - to set them up as a Canadian film crew working on a Sci-Fi movie and simply walk them out of the Airport under the care of Ben Affleck's CIA "Ex-fil" specialist. Implausible as this sounds, this story is mostly true. 

What you have is a really slick, tightly-made thriller that manages to stay nerve-shreddingly tense despite that fact that you (probably) already know the ending. It covers a lot of ground, too; some light Hollywood Satire as they setup the fake Film Studio, with great performances from Alan Arkin and John Goodman, the distant, NASA Mission Control vibe of CIA HQ in Langley, and the claustrophobia and paranoia of Tehran. The film has no villain, and whilst "Iranians, generally" are seen as a threat, a lot of the actual Iranian characters come over as well developed and acted; the final Revolutionary Guard at the airport being won over by the plot of the movie as it's explained to him being a great case in point. 

In some ways this is a movie that manages to have its cake and eat it - its got a great script and great performances; some good gags and strong thriller credentials. It's an astonishingly confident film that seems to achieve everything it sets out to, effortlessly. It's just won the "Best Picture" Oscar, which in some ways I think it deserves, but in others I'm less sure. I'm not sure Argo is really saying anything, or aspiring to be other than an exceptionally well-made historical thriller - and that's fine, because it succeeds at that - but I suspect some of its rivals may be a little chewier on the way down. But that is not to say it isn't a fantastic film, and well worth a watch.