Director : Ben Affleck
Screenplay : Chris Terrio (based on the article “Escape from Tehran” by Joshuah Bearman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Tate Donovan (Bob Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schatz), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Kerry Bishé (Kathy Stafford), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Chris Messina (Malinov), Zeljko Ivanek (Robert Pender), Titus Welliver (Bates)
Argo is a crackerjack based-on-a-true story thriller that finally allows actor/director Ben Affleck to demonstrate his behind-the-camera muscles in a location other than his native Boston, the setting of his previous directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010). Any lingering doubts that Affleck, who was once in danger of becoming a dispensable Hollywood joke, has true filmmaking chops should be put to rest. Argo, while not perfect, is still an impressive feat of tonal balance that manages to be a suspenseful thriller, an all-too-relevant history lesson, a satirical jab at the phoniness of the movie business, and a celebration of the kind of governmental cooperation that, in out current viciously partisan climate, seems more fantastical than the ridiculous nonexistent science fiction movie of the film’s title. Argo is a stark reminder—much needed right now—that the worst situations can often produce the greatest of human feats and goodwill.
The film’s premise about a now declassified CIA operation to extract six American embassy workers hiding in Tehran after the 1979 Iranian revolution is so on-its-face absurd that, had a screenwriter suggested it as the basis of a fictional movie, no one would have bought it. Although the screenplay by newcomer Chris Terrio (inspired by an article by Joshuah Bearman originally published in Wired in 2007) takes some liberties with the historical record in order to punch up the conventions of the thriller genre, it still maintains a general sense of fidelity to the operation, which was masterminded by Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), the CIA’s reigning “exfiltration” expert. The film begins with the fall of the American embassy in Tehran to protestors who stormed the front gates, swarmed the compound, and took more than 50 Americans hostage (their 444-day imprisonment helped sink Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign). However, six embassy workers—Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé), and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane)—escaped out a back door and made their way to the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the Canadian ambassador, who hid them for months while the U.S. government tried to figure out how to sneak them out of a country in the midst of a revolution and swarming with armed militants looking for Americans.
After all the conventional extraction ideas had been shot down, Mendez concocted a scheme to set up a fake movie production and ferry the Americans out of the country disguised as the crew, the story being that they had come to Iran to scout locations. Mendez enlists the assistance of make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had won an Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes (1968), and a fast-talking movie producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin)—a fictional conceit who takes the place of Robert Sidell, another make-up effects artist who worked with Chambers—to set up a production company, secure a script and preliminary production drawings, and con the Hollywood press into printing stories about the planned production before heading to Iran.
Having already proved himself a capable director of both suspense and action, Affleck works the material for maximum impact, primarily by keeping the film’s tension at a constant pitch. He stages the film’s opening sequences during the embassy takeover with documentary-like intensity, framing many of his shots to replicate well-known photographs from the era (a tactic that he happily reveals during the film’s closing credits). He also matches the historical era with its corresponding cinematic style, favoring a more traditional, gritty look that evokes classic ’70s touchstones like All the President’s Men (1976). Even when the film takes substantial liberties with the material—the wholesale invention of Arkin’s character, for example, or the government’s decision to pull the plug at the last minute and Mendez refusing to give up, thus putting him at rebellious odds with his employer—it still has an authentic ring to it, most of which can be credited to Affleck’s aesthetic sensibilities. He never pushes the film too far, instead relying on a subtle interplay between the outlandishness of the premise and our understanding (and perhaps astonishment) that it really happened.
Affleck draws solid, workman-like performances from his impressive cast: Bryan Cranston brings world-weary professionalism to his role as Mendez’s superior while Goodman and Arkin play up the comedy of their Hollywood insiders while also ennobling them via their own personal sacrifice and willingness to use their finely tuned art of bullsh-t in order to save lives, rather than make profits. Affleck himself turns in a cool, slightly detached performance that some may find a bit too distant, but it works in terms of the character and the story. Mendez is, after all, a professional in a dangerous business with a job to do that involves life and death, and one almost wishes they hadn’t tried to cram in a backstory involving his estranged wife and son to give him more color. He doesn’t need it.
For all its suspense and satire, Argo makes its greatest impression in its depiction of people from different backgrounds—CIA spooks, Canadian bureaucrats, movie czars, and ordinary office workers—pulling together, rather than working against each other. The film certainly benefits from the easy demonization of Iran, and Affleck never misses a chance to impress on the audience the country’s deadly mixture of religious fanaticism, ethnic anger, and righteous vengeance; bodies hang from construction cranes, bearded men glare at anything that looks vaguely Western, and faceless crowds chant “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika! (God is great! Death to America)” (to be fair, the film does make it clear in an opening montage that the Iranians had suffered under American foreign policy). With this seething cauldron constantly burning in the background and threatening to explode, it is no wonder that so much was at stake, and in its best, most compelling moments Argo makes use feel the severity of those stakes and forces us to forget the foreknowledge that everything turns out okay.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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