Quick Take: Argo is worth watching on Blu-ray whether it wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards or not.
A decade ago, if you were to say to someone that Ben Affleck would make a great director, chances are that they would have laughed in your face. His bad choices in projects (Pearl Harbor, Gigli, Daredevil) were only outweighed by the wooden performances he delivered in them. By the time Affleck announced that he was going to direct an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Gone Baby Gone, most had little hope that he would be able to do justice to the project.
Ye of little faith – this reviewer included – were quite surprised when the unexpected happened: the movie turned out great. With his eye for detail, character and pacing, Affleck showed the film world that he knew a thing or two about filmmaking after all, talents that were further cemented with his sophomore feature, the fast-moving 2010 heist thriller The Town. While the movie going public had accepted that Affleck was the real deal as a serious filmmaker, it wasn’t until last year’s political thriller Argo that the Boston native forced Hollywood to stand up, applause and recognize his multiple talents.
Argo chronicles a little-known episode of the Iran hostage crisis in the late 1970s, the “Canadian Caper.” The caper was a life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans who managed to escape amidst of the chaos of the November 4, 1979 storming of the American Embassy in Tehran. After being turned away from several embassies that included the British and New Zealand compounds, the half-dozen escapees found sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Knowing it is only a matter of time before the six are discovered missing, tracked down and likely killed by the militants, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist named Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a risky plan to get them safely out of the country.
With the help of a pair of Hollywood old pros, makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel (John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both excellent), Mendez creates a fake Canadian film production for a Star Wars rip off named Argo. Mendez and the six American “houseguests” would pose as the film crew scouting locations in the Middle East to shoot their film and state that they are in Tehran for only a couple of days prior to returning to Canada. Given the climate of insanity that the seven find themselves in, the preposterous plan has a lot of hurdles to overcome but has the slightest of chances to succeed in the end. After all, of all the plans the CIA came up with to get the six escapees out, a fake film crew was the “Best worst plan they had…by far.”
Years ago, a good friend and mentor of mine gave me five words of advice to live by when it came to writing: all killer and no filler. This motto could also be applied to filmmaking. Unfortunately, it rarely happens when it comes to American cinema (The Hobbit, anyone?).
Argo is a fine example of a film that is all killer and no filler. It can be argued that the characters could have been fleshed out a bit more in Chris Terrio’s screenplay (namely the six Americans) and it can also be stated that a few more of the real-life events could have included.
In doing this however, the film certainly would have suffered both in pacing and tension, two things that Affleck does a tremendous job in maintaining throughout. Terrio’s script is filled with just the right amount of information, development, suspense and humor, each factors that Affleck and his superb cast and crew convey with what appears to be great ease (this may explain why Affleck was snubbed for a Best Director Oscar nomination by his peers: jealousy). Even if you know the outcome of the story, I guarantee you that you will be on the edge of your seat during the film’s third act.
People tend to forget why a movie should win a Best Picture Oscar. It’s not because it is relevant to today’s society or that it reinvents the cinematic wheel. Films should win the top prize because it is the most accomplished cinematic project released within the past twelve months. To a great degree, Argo is that film. Is it the best film of 2012? To this reviewer, the answer would have to be “no.” My personal favorite remains fellow Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty. But if Argo does win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year – and all signs are pointing to it doing so -, it’s going to be really difficult to find fault with the Academy’s decision. Argo is a terrific, accomplished crowd-pleaser that deserves all the accolades it has coming to it.
Affleck not only intended to get the time period of Argo as accurate as possible, he also wanted the movie itself to look like a film from the late 1970s, right down to the old school studio logo at the beginning of the film. Warner’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for the Blu-ray does a terrific job in replicating the director’s visual intent.
The transfer has the film-like transfer serious home video fans (myself included) love so much. Given the various film stocks cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto employs in the film (8mm, 16mm and 35mm anamorphic), the transfer could easily have suffered from noise, artificial sharpening and other home video nightmares. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. Film grain is consistent throughout without going overboard, blacks and contrast levels are strong and picture detail is sharp. In fact, the only issue I could find with the transfer (and this is pretty minimal) was the occasional blown-out image during a couple of daytime sequences.
Warner backs up its strong video presentation with a strong 5.1 DTS HD-MA audio track. Argo is largely a dialogue driven film but it does have many moments where the surrounds kick into vibrant life (the militant crowds outside the American Embassy are a perfect example). Center-channel dialogue is consistently clear while the surrounds effectively convey the multitude of sound effects and excellent mix of 70s rock tunes and Alexandre DesPlat’s Middle Eastern-flavored musical score. The LFE channel, like the surround channels, is not consistently used throughout the movie but it does make its presence known when needed.
Beyond the Feature
The supplemental materials for Argo are a nice combination of real-life recollections and behind-the-scenes looks at the film’s production. A theatrical trailer would have been nice to have, but those are becoming increasingly rare with each new home video release it seems (did Aerosmith want royalties for using “Dream On”?). With the exception of a Canadian television special and the audio commentary, the bonus material is presented in decent-quality 1080p/AVC.
- Picture-In-Picture Commentary: Eyewitness Account: One of the best PiP presentations I have seen to date on the Blu-ray format, this running video commentary features interviews with the real-life individuals – among them the American houseguests, former President Jimmy Carter and Tony Mendez – and their recollections of the events. After you see the film, give the movie another spin but do so with this feature activated. It will greatly enhance your appreciation of both Affleck’s efforts and the real-life participants of the “Canadian Caper.”
- Audio Commentary with Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio: With the real-life counterparts of the story getting the video commentary track to share their stories, Affleck and Terrio provide an audio commentary track that focuses more on the making of the film and how they went about creating a fictional account of a real-life event.
- Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option (46:34): A Canadian television documentary produced on the 25th Anniversary of the successful rescue of the six American captives, this special gives further background information on the real-life events. The 47-minute documentary makes for a fascinating watch even if it tends to go a bit overboard on the tabloid-like visual effects from time to time.
- Rescued From Tehran: We Were There (16:51): If you don’t have the two hours to sit through the Picture-in-Picture commentary track, this condensed version should suffice until you do.
- Argo – Absolute Authenticity (11:19): A short look at how Affleck and his production crew recreated the late 1970s/early 1980s of the United States and Iran.
- Argo – The CIA and the Hollywood Connection (6:05): A quick look at Hollywood’s involvement in the operation, including a quick look at John Chambers, the award-winning make-up artist who was key in getting the ball rolling.
Argo on Blu-ray also includes the DVD version and an UltraViolet digital copy.
Argo cements Ben Affleck’s reputation as one of the best commercial filmmakers working in Hollywood today. Smart, funny, engrossing and ultimately uplifting, Argo was easily one of last year’s best bets. Warner’s excellent Blu-ray presentation makes for one of this year’s best home video bets thus far, with first-rate picture and audio presentations and a host of supplemental materials give the viewer further access into what really went down nearly 35 years ago. Soon to be bestowed with some well-earned Oscar gold, Argo comes highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald
Shop for Argo on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (February 19, 2013 release date).