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If Monday Movies Is Doing a Fake Movie, It’s Going To Be a Fake Hit

If the first five minutes of Argo were shown in American high schools, we would not be talking about going to war with Iran. A quick scene-setting voice-over plainly lays out how the nationalization of oil resources by reformer Mohammed Mossadegh upset the United States, who backed a coup to install the brutal Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The Iranians rose up against the Shah, the U.S. allowed him in for medical treatment, and when student rioters took over the embassy in 1979, they demanded he be returned to them for justice.

The movie, based on a must-read Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, depicts the storming of the embassy, but leaves its hostages to tell the story of six lesser-known Americans, who escaped that day, hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador, and were eventually spirited out of Iran by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). Mendez disguised them as the director, screenwriter and scouting crew of the Star Wars rip-off Argo.

Thrilling from beginning to end, Argo is a redemption tale for bullshit artists from Hollywood to Langley. After the nail-biting embassy siege, the movie spends most of its first half shuttling between the worlds of espionage and Hollywood, as Mendez sells his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) on a plan developed with creature-feature makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), a real-life participant and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), an invented one. Both worlds are depicted caustically but affectionately; screenwriter William Goldman’s dictum “nobody knows anything” holds transcontinentally true. Goodman and Arkin are especially hilarious, and the movie could have been told from their standpoint alone and been a winner.

Once Mendez is in Iran, the six near-hostages come into light focus. The most characterized one is Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), who serves as a kind of foil (the movie wisely avoids installing an Iranian Big Bad, although there are plenty of dangerous Revolutionary Guards to avoid). He’s doubtful Mendez’s plan can work, but in a critical moment, tells the fake movie’s story in Farsi using the crew’s whipped-up comic-book-style storyboards, connecting it to universal tales of struggle and liberation that resonate with their audience. It’s the moment that ties together the spies’ and filmmakers’ deprecation of their worlds of bullshit — a celebration of invention that puts the movie into overdrive.

The late-1970’s stylings are note-perfect without being fussy; the script crackles with men-at-work aggressive banter. There is a bit more excitement invented than necessary — if you want to know exactly how long “the nick of time” is as a measurement, use the last third of Argo.

Argo‘s political message is disconcertingly sly. It starts out with a critical take but ends up with a redemptive one. It lays laudable cards on the table about the role of the U.S. in Iranian history, but it ultimately tells a story in which the C.I.A. are the good guys. To the movie’s credit, they’re very clearly surprised to find this out.

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October 15, 2012 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , , , ,

3 Comments

  1. Baseball and running ate up my weekend, but we did have Friday free. Well, not really free because we purchased tickets to go see Louis CK in Detroit so our movie night was replaced with comedy concert night. I have to admit that after Season 3 of his show, I was a little nervous about this concert. His standup comedy had never disappointed, but I had wondered if there had been some kind of shift in what he wanted to do with his work.

    If you have tickets to one of his upcoming shows or want to watch the special that comes from this tour (which I assume there will be), don’t worry. He will not disappoint. Assuming the performances have a common base of stories and jokes, it’s at least as good as you’d expect. He continues to be a unique comedian who makes intelligent observations in very funny ways. For example, he has a bit about getting smarter as you get older where he chides people for saying we shouldn’t have regrets. “Fuck that. Regrets are you getting smarter and learning from the dumb shit you did in the past.”

    He also continues a theme I’ve always thought ran throughout his comedy where he gives voice to some of our deep, guilty thoughts in a way that is not only funny but a relief because we’re glad to hear this stuff doesn’t exist only in our sick brains. I won’t go anymore into that because I’m hoping to spin an essay out of it.

    One last thing I noticed about the performance. He is such a different kind of comedian (we saw Gaffigan about a month ago and the difference, while both are funny, is stark to say the least) that when he does jokes that are traditionally framed standup comedy, they feel almost like an intermission or a commercial break from the rest of the show. He must realize this because when he did a joke about sharks’ dorsal fins, he chuckled at the abrupt change of subject from what he had just been talking about.

    Comment by mattintoledo | October 16, 2012

  2. I would like to read that essay!

    Comment by Josh K-sky | October 16, 2012

  3. I saw TED. Somehow that feels like a sentence which should have the word ‘confess’ in it. Anyhoo, The Family was entertained (ma non troppo).

    Comment by Guido Nius | October 17, 2012


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