Have you ever seen a movie where you walk out saying, “That was just a great fucking movie”? That’s Ben Affleck’s Argo. Inexplicably, a film that draws its strength from humor and suspense, winds up being more moving the second time through. Perhaps because once you have been through the suspense part of it you get to know the characters better and therefore care about their outcomes more.
My second viewing of Argo came last night at the glorious Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, otherwise known as the Academy theater. I was kindly invited to go to the most swanky of all screenings with celebrities in attendance and everything. There was even an after party — which my friend Craig Kennedy and I skipped. Not to humble brag but I will never turn down an invite to the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Cushy seats, big wide screen, mostly quiet audience — it’s nothing short of cinema heaven. But you are never going to get an impartial crowd, particularly, at premieres, not with stars in attendance. Once you file in with the party-goers you pass various checkpoints where you can oggle celebrities, if you are inclined towards that sort of thing. The first checkpoint is past the lights and press tables at the edge of the photography corridor. Standing there last night, you would have seen George Clooney, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck take their pub walk to the theater’s entrance. At the bottom of the stairs is another gathering spot for celebrity watchers. Then you head up Gone with the Wind-esque red carpeted stairs to a mirrored wall, which I swear is a flattering skinny-mirror, in dim lighting for the badly aging and vain among us, and then up another flight of stairs.
At the top of the stairs is where you really get a chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with the famous. I once saw George Clooney exiting the john and it reminded me of that line from Annie Hall, “look, there’s God coming out of the men’s room.”
But Kennedy and I aren’t really interested. We’re mostly above it all. Or at least we pretend to be. Once inside the glorious Samuel Goldwyn Theater otherwise known as the Academy Theater we take our seats and then watch everyone in front of us rubber-neck back in hopes of oggling the incoming celebrities. I actually didn’t see any this time. I caught pictures of them on JustJared but I never actually saw one, except the film’s talented and humble director, Ben Affleck, who introduced the film through a sore throat, stricken with a bad cold.
Affleck introduced the special guests, many of whom were the real people portrayed in the film, Tony Mendez among them. Seeing a real live CIA operative? Scratch that one off the bucket list. The real life attendees who were spirited out of Iran under cover as a fake movie team got the loudest applause in the intros. Thank god.
Argo is a perfect film — a tightly defined one. For the first time in what ought to end up being a promising career, Affleck is in complete command of the material — easily navigating over the necessary jumps — the set up, the conflict, the humor, the suspense, the conclusion. It works on a surface level, as a wildly entertaining thriller. It’s a movie about Hollywood so one might presume that you have to be a Hollywood insider to get the jokes. But you don’t. These are jokes about what the rest of the world thinks about Hollywood. That’s why they’re universally funny.
The truth is that you don’t even really have to dig deeper into Argo if you don’t want to. He had me at Led Zeppelin. But if you want to go deeper you can and that’s what elevates Argo from simple satisfying entertainment to an ultimately profound film about America’s place in the Middle East and ultimately in the world. But you have to be looking. One of Affleck’s gifts here is not overdoing that part of it. He lays out the breadcrumbs subtly, in case you might be looking for them — and if you are, you’ll uncover truths you might not have paid much attention to before. This is one of the things David Fincher does so well, which is why his films can be watched repeatedly and you find something new each time.
Adding yet more layers to the Argo experience is that it is eerily familiar, resonating with what’s happening right now in Libya and the rest of the Islamic Middle East where citizens are protesting America and other countries for airing an anti-Islam video. In our country, the attack on the American embassy in Libya has become officially politicized, this being an election year. The Right are trying to make it Obama’s problem, evidence that he (Osama Bin Laden killer, drone and Afghanistan war-monger that he is) is soft on terrorism and negligent. If you’re as old as I am you will remember that the same condemnation was lobbed at Jimmy Carter, now mostly vindicated, when supposedly tougher President Reagan took over and promptly freed the hostages — thanks to a secret backroom arrangement. Well, Argo makes one point sparkling clear: President Carter made the same kind of clandestine deal. Except he couldn’t take credit for it publicly because the mission was kept confidential to protect those involved — until 1997 when President Clinton declassified it.
In the film, an American embassy is attacked by Iranians. But Affleck never lets events spill over into agit-prop because this was a true story so there is no need. By now, the historical record proffers divided opinions about what went down. This is a story about “the best bad idea” the CIA, working the Canadians, could come up with to free some hostages whose lives were in jeopardy.
Affleck smartly reminds us how easy it is to lose sight of the message when you listen to how the media wags the dog, marinating in the complaints by the public, the anger and helplessness felt by all. As it strangely echoes today, we’re reminded how far first reports diverge from the truth when actual facts finally come out. How much that we see on the news every day is true and how much is spin?
In Telluride, the crowd watching Argo for the first time was amped for a good movie. When it delivered we were so grateful that we leapt to our feet to applaud Affleck for such a great film. The applause was long and sustained. But that was a film festival — enthusiasm kind of goes like that anyway. This time I wanted to see how this crowd would react to the film — and likewise, they applauded in the same spots each time with long sustained applause at the end, all through the credits. Of course, this was a premier. Again, unreliable. I was therefore somewhat surprised, although not really, when my friend from Michigan called to tell me that he’d just seen Argo and the crowd there applauded three times during the credits. That tells me, at the very least, Argo is a crowd-pleaser.
It works on its own as a true story. It works as art because of the script by Chris Terrio, Affleck’s adept, inventive eye as director, and the talent many of the actors he enlisted — Alan Arkin, John Goodman and 2012’s new face, Scoot McNairy. For his part, Affleck’s acting is all the more impressive since he does much more subtle work in front of the camera than we’ve seen from him before. Many of the film’s most emotionally moving scenes are read on Affleck’s face. That’s not easy to pull off, but it’s essential to keep Tony Mendez at the heart of the story.
But even without unpacking all that, Argo is just a great fucking movie.