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- Published on Amazon.com
The Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 saw 52 American diplomats being held for over a year by Iranian authorities after the American embassy in Tehran was stormed by students and military officials, in the wider context of the Iranian Revolution that ousted the pro-western Shah of Iran, and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Most people know that the public crisis was eventually ended diplomatically by the outgoing President Jimmy Carter, but what people didn't know - at least, until documents were declassified in the 1990s - is that six embassy staffers escaped from the building before it was taken by the revolutionaries, and spent months hiding at the Canadian Ambassador's house until they were dramatically rescued by a CIA operative working with a Hollywood makeup artist. This hitherto-unknown story is the basis of Argo, the latest film from actor-director Ben Affleck.
Affleck himself stars as CIA special agent Tony Mendez who, in collaboration with his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and crotchety studio producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), comes up with an outlandish plan: Mendez will travel to Iran posing as a Canadian film producer scouting exotic locations for a science fiction movie called Argo, and whisk the six out from under the nose of the revolutionary guards by pretending that they are part of his film crew. It would be a completely outrageous tale if it wasn't entirely true, and despite the audience knowing the outcome beforehand, Affleck's assured direction, Chris Terrio's taut screenplay, and excellent performances by the entire cast makes the film an interesting, intelligent, suspenseful thriller - one of the best of the year.
Argo's score is by the perennially-busy Alexandre Desplat; this is his fifth score of 2012 already (following Cloclo, De Rouille et d'Os, Moonrise Kingdom and Reality), and he still has two more in the pipeline waiting to be released (Rise of the Guardians and Zero Dark Thirty), but it is this score which is likely to garner him his fifth Oscar nomination next spring. Although Argo is not a film which relies on music to drive its narrative, Desplat's music nevertheless plays an important part in setting the tone and location specificity of the film, as well as providing an emotional catharsis at appropriate moments. Stylistically, Desplat draws on traditional Middle Eastern textures and instrumental colors, and builds on the sound heard in his own score for Syriana from 2005, but increases the orchestral element significantly, resulting in a score which retains its authenticity but still packs a significant emotional punch.
Many of the cues are heavily flavored by ney flutes, tonbak drums, kemenche cellos and the ubiquitous oud guitars, all of which are prevalent in traditional Persian music. "A Spy in Tehran", "The Business Card", "Breaking Through the Gates" and "Drive to the Airport" have more than a hint of the bazaar about them, with flashy instrumental performances, quick-fire pacing and effervescent, spicy rhythms that often develop into punchy, vibrant action music. Other cues such as the opening "Argo" and "Istanbul - The Blue Mosque" are more subdued and atmospheric mood-setters, although they too are given a more contemporary edge through the addition of soft string accompaniments and an almost subliminal electronic drone. Once in a while the electronics play a much more prominent role, and in these instances the music almost begins to approach the A.R. Rahman style heard in scores like Slumdog Millionaire, albeit without the overtly upbeat Bollywood stylistics.
Vocals also play an important part of the score, with the much-maligned but culturally significant `wailing woman' lamenting plaintively over cues such as the aforementioned "A Spy in Tehran". One of the more clever vocal stylings is a sort of Persian scatting, in which a whole cache of breathy ululations, tongue-taps and throat songs create an unusual, exotic mood. Cues such as "Scent of Death", "Hotel Messages", the aforementioned "Breaking Through the Gates", "The Six Are Missing" and "Sweatshop" layer these vocalizations on top of each other to mesmerizing effect, and stand as some of the most strange but effective pieces in the score.
Thematic identity is not really Argo's strong element, and those who need that sort of thing in their scores might find the score a little difficult to connect with on that front. However, this is not to say that recurring thematic elements are completely absent. There is a subdued four-note motif representing the six stranded Americans that, despite continually threatening to break out into his main theme from Twilight: New Moon, can be heard in cues such as the piano-led "Held Up By Guards", "Tony Grills the Six" and "Missing Home", and buried deep in the strings in ""Breaking Through the Gates" .
Meanwhile, Desplat's two concessions to traditional Hollywood scoring come in "The Mission" and the conclusive, emotional "Cleared Iranian Airspace". In "The Mission" Desplat presents one of the most stirring Americana themes of his career - a noble and patriotic theme for the full orchestra that celebrates of the rescue of the hostages and their successful return home, and reminds of the sort of thing Marc Shaiman wrote for The American President, in terms of tone and style, but not the actual melody. In "Cleared Iranian Airspace", on the other hand, the theme returns in a more reflective mood with a solo piano performance that gradually picks up the rest of the orchestra over the course of it's six minute length, culminating in an inspiring, powerful final statement. The album itself concludes with a hummed performance of the pretty Chilean children's lullaby "Hace Tuto Guagua", performed by the folk group Familion, and which was taken from the 1997 album The Planet Sleeps.
Your tolerance for Argo will depend entirely on your tolerance for authentic-sounding Middle Eastern music, as no amount of beautiful patriotic orchestral music or intelligent application of electronic and vocal effects will counterbalance the wailing women and traditional instrumentation that pervades almost the entire score. Personally, I thought Argo was an excellent effort which captures the chaotic nature of life and the sense of barely-contained danger prevalent in Tehran, especially in that time period, but juxtaposes it with a sense of heroism and sentiment that encompasses, but never overwhelms, the positivity of the American side of the story. Highly recommended.