3 Mar 2013


1980 was a seminal year; Alfred Hitchcock died, and John Lennon was gunned down. Ronald Regan took over from Carter and a new era in the cold war began, most of the world rejoiced at the majority black rule in Zimbabwe, once Rhodesia. That last one was a little premature for the people of Zimbabwe of any colour.

I was 7 and was obsessed with Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica. I fell in love with Blondie and Wendy James in my own quiet way, and thought Sting was the coolest man alive. And in Iran 52 Americans were being held hostage. I have no recollection of those events. I barely remember Jimmy Carter being the US president. I do remember images of the Shia militia firing RPGs on the TV, but I don't remember the Americans in Iran.

When I heard about Argo I was initially interested, but when I found out that New Zealand’s contribution to the rescue of the six "house guests" had been removed I was annoyed. I believe I have made explained this before, but allow me to do so again. Many people say to me "It's just a movie!" and while I am passionate about movies, and seriously believe that their capacity to convey ideas is just as powerful as poetry or books or music. So when movies portray historical events then they can influence perceptions to real events, and how they are portrayed adds or changes the story.

Of course any movie based on historic events is as much as an adaptation as a movie of a book. And even the most accurate portrayal will have artistic licence to make some changes to ensure that the narrative has a good pace to keep people engaged for the full 127 minutes, or whatever. But as long as the films narrative is true to the story, then we can all make allowances.

Some good non fictional examples of what I am talking about are The Kings Speech, and U-571. The former had several historical alterations; the presence of high ranking officials when there were not, and the relationship between the King and his therapist, (profanity in front of the king in the thirties?), But overall the films departures are minor, and do not significantly alter anything.

U-571 on the other hand is a complete fabrication. For those of you who do not know, it is the story of an American Submarine crew which captured the first enigma machine. This film not only alters history, but is a complete distortion of history. And unashamedly so. The films writer regrets his part in the film because of how the film detracts from the heroism of the real people involved, instead of celebrating it.

Ben Affleck the film’s director and star, has made several public statements about the depiction of New Zealand and the UK in the film. He has acknowledged he has depicted our involvement unfairly to create a sense of drama. Quote:

"I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone."

But is Argo a mercenary historical travesty or merely artistic licence which unfortunately detracts from our history? And more importantly is it any bloody good?

A synopsis;

1979 and the Shah set up to rule Iran by the CIA has been overthrown, and fled to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Anger at the American involvement amongst the students of Tehran reaches boiling point when they invade the American consulate and take 52 personnel hostages. Six personnel however make it outside via the street access to the visa section.

They take refuge in the Canadian Embassy (not the British) and hide there. Eventually their position becomes untenable and the decision is made to infiltrate them. Several options are proposed; Bicycles to escape on, the escape under the assumed identities of agricultural advisors, or perhaps English language teachers seeking employment. A separate option is floated by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), A Canadian film crew scouting for a Middle East location. The Bureau reluctantly agrees to this as the best worst plan they have.

Working with his friend John Chambers (John Goodman), a movie makeup artist who created Spock's ears, and worked on Planet of the Apes. Mendez meets Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin); a movie producer who helps them set up a phoney production company, and publically starts work on the production of Argo, a terrible Star Wars rip off. With sufficient publicity disseminated Mendez travels to Turkey and gets a visa to scout locations in Iran. Successful with the visa, Mendez has to convince the six house guests that his plan will work, and then has to make it work.

Ensue escape hijinx.

Argo success as a film comes from not trying to make another Bourne identity, but to highlight the ludicrousness of the circumstances as well as the drama. Bryan Cranston who plays Mendez's superior Jack O'Donnell does a great job in conveying both. Better known as the Dad in Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston is an excellent actor and an excellent foil for Afflecks understated performance. Goodman and Arkin performances while small are very memorable and highly enjoyable.

The production set in the 70's was almost as good as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as capturing the period. For me I feel that Affleck’s direction was far superior than his acting, not that his acting was poor. But Affleck played his part in the film, and while the leading actor, he let others like Arkin, Goodman and Cranston out shine him. I thought his direction was very good, and it is a shame he was snubbed in such a way by not even being nominated for best director in the oscars.  Especially after  Argo  won best film.

The film was very good, I am not sure if it was the best film of last year? I certainly enjoyed Skyfall, and Avengers more, but maybe in different ways. I hope that if people liked the movie they will look into it more and realise our part in these events, certainly Affleck has made public gestures about our involvement. And for that I am appeased. This is definitely not another U-571.

It is a good film, not sure if it is one to keep, and if you have not seen it you can wait for DVD. Is it the best picture of 2012? Certainly a good film across the board. But I will let you decide.

Seven monkeys from me.


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