Review Date: 10-14-12
Release Date: 10-12-12
Runtime: 120 minutes
Period: 1979 – 1980
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West
In 1979, Americans working at the US Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage. Six of them escaped and sought refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador. One man helped them out of Iran. This is the premise of Argo. Based on the true-life story of CIA agent Tony Mendez, the film is gripping, absorbing, and kind of a nail biter. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in some time, and the costumes and characterizations are top notch.
The story is real, and the people are real. In this sense, it’s a kind of bio-pic, and as a costume designer, you want to get it right. Jacqueline West did a great job in recreating the look of these people, and you really need to stick around for the end credits to see just how accurate her work was. It’s kind of astounding.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) starts the film in business attire. Dressed in cold navy and grey suits, and wearing rep striped neckties, his costumes tell us that he is serious and wants to be taken seriously. His long hair and beard tell us that he is (or can be) a chameleon. Working for the CIA, or course, he needs to be a little of both – a serious chameleon.
When the plan is hatched to make a fake movie (the cover story for getting the six Americans out of Iran), he consults with makeup artist John Carpenter (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Tony Mendez shifts costume like a chameleon into an amateur-player’s uniform of open-collared shirt and gold chain. Hey, it was 1980 after all. It’s a look that is slightly sexy, slightly sleazy, and just right for the role he has assumed.
When he gets to Iran, it’s really on the line. If he can’t convince the Iranian authorities that he is who he says he is (a Hollywood producer), all will be lost. We see him in an open-collared denim/chambray shirt for much of this action, and it’s a great choice as it conveys a subtle sort of “cowboy” vibe that is at once Western and rogue. It’s beautifully done.
There are tons of crowd scenes in this film, and the look is well-matched to archival footage of the era. This film blends so much archival footage into the narrative, it is difficult to sort through what is real and what was recreated for the movie. That’s how good and how accurate this costuming is. A big part of this accuracy also is accomplished with hair and makeup – they did an absolutely outstanding job on this film. It looks real, it looks lived-in, and it is 100% appropriate. Nice work, everyone.
Beyond the costumes and the “look” of the film, I can’t say enough about the filmmaking craft itself. The editing, the timing, the music, everything was really wonderful. The tension was slowly built, there was skillful use of humor to move the story along. I think the audience felt truly invested in the outcome for all of the characters in the film. The movie theater where I saw this film (rural area, 5PM on a Friday) was PACKED. I hope Argo does well – not just because it’s a good movie, but also because I think it speaks to the current situation in Syria, Egypt, and other countries experiencing upheaval. The movie is a good reason for us to pause and reflect on what liberty means.
The film seems strangely apolitical (in the sense that we don’t see the machinations of the US Government to the extent one would expect) in the context of what amounted to a total political and diplomatic meltdown at the time. The American hostages who were held at the US Embassy for 444 days were only released on January 20, 1981 – the day Ronald Reagan took office. This symbolic date is never addressed in the film, and while former President Jimmy Carter gives a nice voice over at the end of the film, there is so much more to the story of these American hostages, his Presidency, and the back-story regarding the former Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) that are important parts of this slice of history. I think that Ben Affleck, as director of Argo, did a fine job of keeping the film on track – the issue of the hostage crisis was so thick and layered, with so many stories to tell. He did an excellent job of whittling down the material to only that which was essential to the Tony Mendez story. Tough job, for sure.
I hope you get to see this great film – congrats to Jacqueline West and her crew on a job well done, and congrats to Ben Affleck on pulling off what must have seemed like a monumental undertaking. Fantastic work, and congratulations!! Please stick around for the end credits, as they will blow your mind!