WINNING this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, Argo’s victory over frontrunner Lincoln wasn’t all that surprising in the end.
Warner Bros, £15.99
The Academy Awards is Hollywood’s annual opportunity to pretend to the world that it really does care about more than just box-office receipts and even though Lincoln was precisely the kind of worthy movie Oscar voters often go for, it was also achingly dull. Argo, on the other hand, was a good example of a serious movie that was fun and a fun movie that was serious – and of course it didn’t hurt that Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama also featured Hollywood in a starring role.
Based on the somewhat-true story of how the CIA enlisted Hollywood producers, effects artists and concept designers to devise an elaborate cover story to facilitate the rescue of six American State Department employees from Tehran in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1980, the film gets to have its cake and eat it by using its couldn’t-make-it-up premise as a thematic justification for occasionally playing fast and loose with the truth. The film’s finale, for instance, didn’t quite happen the way it’s portrayed on film, but it works as an externalisation of the fear the US hostages must have felt as they were making their getaway by pretending to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie.
Elsewhere, though, Affleck pays close attention to period detail in portraying the events as they happened. Genuine newsreel footage is used as a template for his shot designs, the State Department workers taken hostage look authentically of the time and Affleck also takes care – via a swift context-setting history of US-Iranian relations – to dramatically recreate the heart-in-mouth storming of the American Embassy in a responsible way. He judges the tone perfectly too, flitting effortlessly between the amusingly satirical Hollywood scenes – featuring John Goodman as Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers) – and the gritty on-the-ground operation revolving around the efforts of CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) to get the hostages out. But one of the most fascinating things Affleck has done is to appropriate the film stocks and style of other Hollywood thrillers of the period (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and The Conversation are all reference points), which instantly makes the otherwise preposterous-seeming story of this film seem more credible and authentic.
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