Review for Argo (2013)
I think the first time I was ever really scared was when my dad took me to India on holiday, when I was little more than a toddler. On the way there, the plane landed in Tehran, and we were stuck on the tarmac for ages, as armed Iranian soldiers boarded and searched the plane. This was at the end of 1976, the Shah was still in power and the Middle East was generally safe enough to fly straight through without any detours. Obviously, when the revolution happened a few years later, the Shah deposed in absentia, and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, they must have changed the airport policy, or the plan recounted in Argo would never have worked.
Still, this is one of those films that are so ridiculous that it’s impossible to believe, except that it is based on a true story. It’s a truism that real life can sometimes be far more bizarre than the human imagination can contemplate. And you can imagine how quickly you might be shown the exit from a film producer’s office if you try to pass off some moments in history as pure fiction. Certainly the tale told in Argo makes the mind boggle.
In 1979, when the revolution in Iran removed the Shah from power, he sought refuge in the US, seeking treatment for his terminal cancer. For most people in Iran, it looked like the US siding with their pawn against the people he had terrorised in a decades long dictatorship. They sought retribution, and they did so by storming the US Embassy in Tehran and taking 52 of the staff hostage, in a crisis that lasted well over a year. This much is pretty well known history.
A little aspect of the story that isn’t as well remembered is that 6 of the Embassy staff, most from the visa office actually escaped from the building when the assault began. They sought and found refuge with the Canadian ambassador, but wound up trapped in his official residence. With the situation getting ever more tense in Iran, the question arises as to how to get them out safely, and in the US, brainstorming doesn’t throw up too many realistic ideas. But then exfiltration expert Tony Mendez comes up with a completely unrealistic idea, bring the six Americans out under cover of a Canadian film crew, location scouting in Tehran for a sci-fi movie.
Argo offers the choice of the Theatrical Version (120:22), and the Extended Version (129:35), and for the purposes of the review, I watched the latter.
Argo gets a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice of DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Spanish, French, German, and English Audio Descriptive with subtitles in these languages and Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish on the Theatrical Version; The Extended Version lacks French and Audio Descriptive. The film looks fantastic, clean and sharp throughout, although the muted colour palette and deliberately aged look of the film tries to give it a 70s style to match its production and costume design, and better blend with the use of stock footage. The audio is nice and immersive, while the dialogue remains clear throughout. A bit of CG is used to extend locations and make them authentic to the period.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case. The disc autoplays trailers for Blu-ray 3D and Trouble With the Curve. It then boots to a static menu.
On the disc you’ll find the following extras, the first two with the theatrical cut.
Feature Length Picture In Picture: Eyewitness Account (subtitled if you don’t want to mess with your secondary audio settings)
Commentary with director Ben Affleck, and writer Chris Terrio.
Short Feature: Rescued From Tehran: We Were There (16:51)
Behind the Scenes: Argo: Absolute Authenticity (11:19)
Short Feature: Argo: The CIA and Hollywood Connection (6:05)
Documentary: Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option (46:34 SD)
This is a really nice selection of extras, a fair bit regarding the making of the film but a lot more regarding the real story, with input from the original embassy staff, the former Canadian ambassador, the real Tony Mendez, and President Jimmy Carter. It’s a treasure trove of firsthand history that is actually more fantastic than the film itself in some aspects.
I stepped away from my usual preferences and picked a multi-award winner to watch, despite my innate cynicism about such things. And Argo isn’t exactly light on awards, picking up the big ones at the Oscars and the Baftas, best picture, best director, and best screenplay and so on. It’s a really good film as well, a compelling recreation of recent history, an edge of the seat drama, and given its premise, a hint of absurdist comedy as well. Other than the dramatic licence taken to compress events and flesh out characters, you have to remember that this really happened. This daft idea actually worked. It’s like a season 5 A-Team script, and it seems a lot more dramatic then the real life history, drily related in the added documentary, but the added drama really does work.
I really appreciated the verisimilitude in the film. It recreated the late seventies and early eighties era with the kind of uncanny realism that challenges nitpickers to actively seek out goofs, but the sense of the era comes across brilliantly. There is also a fair bit of recreation of genuine events and images, particularly the storming of the US Embassy and the general human tragedy that came with the Iranian revolution.
The sense of humour really is delightful with how Mendez comes up with, and brings about his idea. The brain trust in the CIA were coming up with daft ideas to extract the six, down to sending them bicycles and maps to the border 300 miles distant, so Mendez’ idea really comes across as the last straw to grasp at. He recruits the make-up artist John Chambers and acerbic director Lester Siegel to quickly set up a production company and create a movie that would appear as real to anyone who got too curious. There is a whole lot of fun seeing the Tinsel Town shenanigans as they quickly make the film come together, to the point where a location scouting trip to Tehran would appear plausible.
To contrast this frivolity, the film treats the situation in Iran, the hostage crisis in the embassy and the long drawn sense of fear and despair among the six in the Canadian Ambassador’s residence with a sense of complete reality. It’s a tense and edgy drama that keeps the audience on edge, as they try to survive in, and escape what has become a police state, where it’s hard to trust anyone. So when at the last minute, this agent shows up with a set of false identities, and insisting that they learn new roles as a film director, producers, cameraman and screenwriter in the space of a few hours, and work up the chutzpah to simply walk out of the country, their scepticism is palpable. Meanwhile back in Washington, politicians start changing their minds...
Argo is both brilliant entertainment, and a fascinating snapshot into history. It’s very much worth watching, and on this Blu-ray it gets great presentation and a very useful collection of extras.