Every year, one movie speaks to a sense of now. Whether intentionally (“Up in the Air“) or unintentionally (“The Artist“), their messages resonate with current concerns and taps powerfully into the zeitgeist.
I highly doubt that any movie in 2012 comes along and captures that spirit better than “Argo,” and if it does … then I’ll have to upload a picture of myself with a foot in my mouth to my Facebook page. Some of the similarities to the current times could not have been foreseen, and no one wanted to foresee the tragic loss of four Americans to an attack on an overseas embassy.
Regardless, it happened, and it makes the immaculately constructed and taut opening that depicts the siege of the embassy in Tehran is viewed through an entirely different lens. We think not only of the people trying to escape a volatile 1979 Iran but also of Ambassador Steven and his slain colleagues. The painful coexistence of the now with the then is deeply unsettling, and it sets the tone for a movie that entertainingly and thrillingly historicizes the contemporary.
However, I don’t attribute the success of “Argo” merely to coincidence and fate. The movie works because it was meticulously and intentionally crafted by director Ben Affleck, who continues to make leaps and bounds with each movie he makes. And “The Town” was by no one’s standards a bad movie. He proves that on-the-job training does not a bad filmmaker create as he continues to learn from his own mistakes, correct them, and improve on what was already working.
Affleck is proving to be an emerging master in setting tones and establishing convincing settings. Moving away from his comfort zone of hometown Boston, he still manages to make the doldrums of Washington feel stagnant in the face of international crisis. His Hollywood is another very interesting world, one where everyone is an actor and a pervasive layer of superficiality coats everything. It is here where Affleck’s CIA operative Tony Mendez must venture to find a cover story for a covert rescue of six Americans who evaded being taken hostage. The transfer from the dimly-lit hallways to the lavish poolsides makes Mendez feel quite lost.
Thankfully, Chris Terrio’s script gives us a brilliant guide to this perilous terrain in Alan Arkin’s Robert Siegel, a self-aware hack who sees right through all the industry BS. The tongue-in-cheek commentary is brilliant, and in the hands of crotchety Arkin, it’s hilarious too. John Goodman is also on hand to provide a much jollier, less cynical counterpart to Siegel; the two work marvelously in league with each other.
While “Argo” may be willing to send up the film industry, it’s a movie fully and wholeheartedly convinced of the artistic power of cinema. Mendez may be slick and furtive, but his skills are often less useful in the different austere landscape of Tehran. His planning and acting can only get himself and the six diplomats so far. In the end, it’s the movies and their universal language that save them.
That’s what it’s all about, right? A movie that reminds us of film’s power to connect people from different cultures, backgrounds, and life experiences. A movie that shows us of the value of a little bit of ingenuity in the midst of bureaucratic stalemate in the government. A movie that encourages people who might have different goals to work together for the greater good of humanity. This is cinema, this is creativity, this is cooperation. This is “Argo,” this is 2012, this is now, this is us.