Argo: Just a Great F*cking Movie

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.

 

30 Comments on this Post

  1. OMG! Sasha, I love your review, we applauded during the film and at the credits beginning and again when they showed a certain picture. The applause was huge each time but this was at TIFF and the audience was electric through the whole movie!

    Argo is my number 1 film of the year!

    Can’t wait to see this again when it opens here in Michigan!

  2. Actually, Deep Throat is a great *fucking* movie…Argo is a fucking great movie!!

  3. Can’t wait to see the sex scenes.

  4. Mohammed

    I thought I couldn’t be more excited for Argo. Now I must see if one our neighbouring countries get it before us and perhaps go there.

    A F******* great second review Sasha!

  5. I’m really worried the hype for this will leave me disappointed the way it did this morning with Looper. Looper was good, but certain people talked it up so much that it let me down and I’m not sure it was the film’s fault.

  6. @Mel- there is no way that Argo is going to disappoint you, it is perfect, just perfect. I mean it was my most anticipated film at TIFF and it exceeded all my expectations!

  7. Ellsworth

    Sasha, I was there as well .. incredible all around. The writing and the editing stood out for me. But really, nothing but excellence with everything.

    On a side note, I recently moved here and had I seen you would have introduced myself .. I love your blog and writing style/voice. You should have come to the after party!

  8. Hey Sasha, what do you think the most likely Oscar noms are that Argo will receive?

  9. Bob Burns

    thanks, Sasha, especially for setting the scene.

    maybe karger isn’t fate this time…. same year the DGA isn’t.

  10. Argo possible Oscar locks:

    Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin)
    Best Director
    Best Adapted Script
    Best Picture
    Best Film Editing

    Possible:

    Best Cinematography
    Best Sound Mixing
    Best Art Direction
    Best Costume Design

    MAYBE

    Best Original Score
    Best Sound Editing

  11. “Argo” is this year’s “The Social Network.” It’s a super dope movie aligned with the “right now” that will ultimately get beat for Best Picture by a more conventional film with way less verve.

  12. The Dude

    Now, come on, I really liked Argo, but it’s not the best thing since sliced bread.

  13. MoreMovies85

    It’s a great movie. Definitely the best I’ve seen so far this year, but there is so much more still to be seen, especially for a guy in the middle of Ohio.

  14. Pierre de Plume

    It has been a long wait for Ben Affleck after his initial splash with Good Will Hunting. He surprised me with Gone Baby Gone and then The Town. With a film that sounds better than good – and one that’s timely – this could really be a great year for him – and his film.

  15. Sasha asked “Have you ever seen a movie where you walk out saying, “That was just a great fucking movie”?”

    Actually yes…I was at a screening for Silver Linings Playbook and at the end I had that feeling. Haven’t seen Argo yet…hear it’s good. Can’t wait to see it.

  16. Just saw Argo at a sneak and loved it. The crowd clapped at the end, gasped at the credits and everyone was jazzed.

    I was one of the ones that saw Silver Linings at TIFF and immediately burst with emotion that it was a huge crowd pleaser; will be a big holiday hit and an Oscar contender.

    After seeing Argo, it’s just as much of a crowd pleaser. And the subject matter is topical with great importance.

    I think Argo has the edge (with an actor behind the director’s chair) until we see Lincoln and Les Miserables.

    It’s one of those three. But I think Ebert is right (for now) with his Argo call.

  17. Tony And Jonna Mendez

    Just about the most insightful review of the movie that we have read. Hope Ben reads it too. Watched the movie in DC last night sitting next to Gen. David Petreus, Director of CIA. He, too, loved the movie.

    Great job, Sasha!

  18. ^ That thing above me is pretty awesome. O.o

  19. rufussondheim

    I could have done without the all of the close-calls, the story was interesting enough without all of the last second plot developments. In the final sequence it seems like people forgot the time zone difference of 8 hours. The movie would have been great without all of that.

    What no one on this site has commented on is how personally trying the whole experience must have been for everybody and I think the film captures this wonderfully. And it does it without concentrating on it. The facial expressions of the actors throughout were far more revealing than any words one could have written for them. It captured the experience in a very visceral yet understated way. It’s simply marvelous.

    And I love Ben Affleck’s performance. Sure he wasn’t excited (someone somewhere laughably suggested Nic Cage for the role!) that’s what made him a great CIA agent, his ability to maintain control of his emotions in nearly every imaginable situation. And what was so beautifully done was the scenes when he came home, he still maintained his quiet composure.

    And then it clicks for the viewer. Hey, this guy leads a terribly difficult life and he’s unable to discuss it in any real way and he must hold it all in, how hard it must be to maintain a marriage and a healthy relationship with your children, how hard it must be for his family not to know when to support him, or even how to support him. What an immense sacrifice these people make.

    This movie made me enormously appreciative for these people.

    It’s a great movie.

  20. Nathan V

    Thrilled to hear that Mr and Mrs Mendez, and Gen Petreus, loved the film. Wow! I found it to be a triumph on all levels- craft, tone, writing, interest, capturing the era, maximizing truth (all things considered); about the best you could ask for. Thank you for the hard work you’ve contributed to this country, and the manner in which you’ve done so. Bravo!

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