Argo is Sesame Street for grownups. It's a history lesson that goes down like candy, a recreation of a little-known component of the Iran hostage crisis rendered into a breathless two-hour thriller. It's brilliant and clear, intense and hysterical and its moments of profundity are there for the consuming, should you be interested in that sort of thing. It also offers more of a visceral thrill than anything else I've seen this year or during most years. It's diabolical infotainment.
A depiction of a seemingly doomed mission, in which an outlandish ruse was set by the CIA to fabricate a fake sci-fi movie for the purpose of extracting six Americans from Iran, Argo can't lose. It is a near-perfect movie and a perfect piece of pop culture for 2012. Here is why:
- It is a political retelling of a political story that comes in an intensely political year. Being wooed by it almost feels like a responsible thing to do.
- Its background is bite-sized. Argo is based on Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired story, "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran." (Bearman participated in a Q&A about that article here yesterday.) You want background? An enhanced knowledge of what you're seeing onscreen? A dialogue with yourself about the adaptation of printed material? All it'll take you is about 20 minutes to ingest Argo's similarly accessible and entertaining source material.
- It's a counterpoint to the increasingly common idea that the movie medium is dead. Argo's tautness is its strength – despite involving history that goes years and years way beyond Bearman's piece, this story is distilled in a way that could only work in a 2-hour film. Anything else would be overkill, would rob the audience of the delight in Argo's frenetic pacing. Argo is how movies are supposed to work and it is a reminder of how effective they are when they do. It relies on the kind of storytelling in which seconds separate life and death, and it's that kind of excitement that cinema specializes in.
- It's endearingly self-aware. Embedded in the movie is wry commentary on moviemaking, courtesy of the film experts Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) enlists to advise him on making a fake Star Wars knock-off. "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day," snorts make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman). The hilarity in an actor-turned-director including this in his film should not be lost on anyone.
- It's a story of self-actualization. Speaking of that actor-turned-director thing, this is Affleck's third feature. They have all been received rapturously. His ability as a director will likely eclipse the respect he's gotten for his acting, and we're watching it happen right before our eyes. Argo is a film about what makes a hero and while making a movie is nothing compared to saving human lives, it is by Affleck's filmmaking that the message is relayed. Cool trick.
- It's about the absurdity of life. The idea to use a fake B-movie to rescue virtual hostages is not immediately embraced by Mendez's bosses. Here is a snippet of an argument:
Mendez: "There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one."
A higher-up (played by Philip Baker Hall): "You don't have a better bad option?"
Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston): "This is the best bad idea we have found so far."
Argo is the best high-profile example in recent memory of the stranger-than-fiction cliché. It trounces reality TV in this respect.
- There's a race component to argue over. Affleck cast himself (a white person) as the Latino Tony Mendez. Does this bespeak a deep-seated racism that invalidates the entire film, as Tail Slate's And Palladino suggests? I don't think so, but it's certainly worth a Twitter argument or two. At a time when no racial component within pop culture can be dissected enough, here's a giant one for the slab.
- "Argo fuck yourself" is an instantly memorable pull quote. I mean, come on. Brilliant. The movie is instantly immortal on the strength of that alone.