A funny thing happened on Lincoln‘s way to Oscar domination: Argo came back from the dead. With a stunning slew of major wins throughout awards season, most notably multiple director wins for the Oscar-slighted Ben Affleck, Argo has now emerged as the likely frontrunner for the Best Picture Academy Award. If you missed it in theaters, Warner Brothers has shrewdly timed its home release for the week leading up to the Oscars, ensuring that the retail channel is primed for the increased interest generated by the awards. They’ve also packed the Blu-ray with exceptional supplemental material including extensive interviews with President Carter and the rest of the real people behind the story.
The film’s Oscar momentum has offered an intriguing and somewhat unprecedented case study, with early praise and awards chatter greeting its fall release that had dissipated to such a low level by year end that its eventual Oscar nominations seemed more like also-ran acknowledgement rather than legitimate contender status. All that started to change during the Golden Globes and continued on through the other major awards, with Argo taking a disproportionately high amount of best picture and best director prizes and making the film white hot for the Oscars in the process. Affleck has excelled at diplomatically utilizing his many director wins and Oscar omission to leverage attention for the film, and a week out from the big show things couldn’t look brighter.
But is it actually worthy of all the acclaim? Absolutely. Utilizing a harrowing but flag-waving real life story, the film expertly recounts a dark moment from US history that turned out well but was shrouded in deceit for nearly 20 years. That gives it some big Oscar checkmarks: geopolitical intrigue, period drama, and a fascinating story all played out in a painstakingly researched and recreated ’70s sandbox. Unlike Lincoln, the events presented here resonate personally with most Academy members, as anyone over 40 has very clear memories of the Iranian hostage crisis and can relate to the Carter presidential era. The fact that the story is so crazy it could only be true, and yet was kept from the general public for decades, gives it added cachet as a wholly original project worthy of praise.
That story centers on the fate of six US diplomats who escaped from our embassy in Iran in 1979 when it was seized by angry locals. The Iranians were incensed by the US decision to offer asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran rather than relinquishing him to stand trial for his alleged crimes against the people, and they ultimately stormed our embassy as an angry mob. While everyone else in the embassy was held hostage for over a year, those six found refuge in the home of Canadian ambassadors where they attempted to avoid detection during the initial weeks of the crisis. With the country locked down to exiting US citizens, our government had to come up with a valid exfil plan. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck).
After discarding a couple of other far-fetched ideas, Mendez promotes the plan of pretending to film a sci-fi movie in Iran and providing the six with cover identities as the film’s scouting crew. The plan goes so far as to set up a production office in Hollywood, buy the option on a script, take out ads in the trade magazines, commission storyboards, and recruit a top-tier makeup artist (John Goodman) and producer (Alan Arkin). With all the trappings of a real film production in place, Mendez travels to Iran, meets and supplies Canadian passports to the six, and rehearses their cover identities at length to ensure they avoid any suspicion if questioned. Affleck skillfully ratchets up the tension throughout the nerve-wracking events leading up to their eventual escape attempt, with the fear of detection always front and center in our minds. While the final chase comes off as contrived and silly, it’s a small ding on an otherwise excellent project.
The story is the best aspect of the film, closely followed by its incredible attention to ’70s detail in fashion, sets and locations that comes across as wholly authentic rather than heavily staged. That detail extends all the way to the retro ’70s WB logo at the start of the film, along with side by side comparisons of actual historical photos next to stills from their recreated scenes that spool out during the closing credits. The performances are uniformly serviceable but unremarkable, with Affleck actually coming off the worst in the acting department due to his attempt to recreate Mendez’s humorless, almost detached CIA agent persona.
Picture quality is a bit of a mixed bag, with some scenes so grainy they look like they’re also aiming for period-centric authenticity, but others, mostly in the Hollywood segments, so crisp and clean that they fully exploit Blu-ray hi def precision. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack only impresses during chaotic scenes at the siege of the embassy and the escape attempt, with the rest of the film dialogue-heavy and not in need of surround pizzazz.
The Blu-ray bonus features are incredibly robust, especially given their heavy use of an actual ex-President. Carter doesn’t just offer a soundbite; he’s a key member of the subjects interviewed for the film and offers great insight into the hostage crisis, the relationship with Canada, and his thoughts on Mendez. Mendez also appears, along with the six houseguests, and all of their footage has been cut into a feature-length picture-in-picture presentation of the film that allows viewers to see and hear them in the bottom right corner of the screen while the scenes they describe play out on the rest of the screen. How many other films boast Presidential picture-in-picture? It’s a great feature, no matter your personal thoughts on Carter.
Other bonus features include additional footage with the subjects discussing the rescue attempt, an interview with Affleck and his production designers discussing the extreme lengths they undertook for ’70s authenticity, and a featurette with Affleck and Mendez exposing the secrets behind the phony movie that everyone believed. There’s also a nearly hour-long historical documentary from the Canadian perspective, with a look at footage from their government sessions discussing the crisis along with interviews with key figures.
Argo is available on Blu-ray combo pack, DVD, and digital download on Tuesday, February 19th. The Blu-ray combo pack includes a DVD along with an Ultraviolet digital download of the film.