Movie Review: Argo
By Matthew Huntley
October 24, 2012
The true story behind Argo is so unbelievable it’s as if it was dreamed up by a screenwriter. After watching the film, I had to remind myself it’s based on real events that weren’t the product of some writer’s imagination, but of life itself. Ben Affleck, who stars and directs, has at his disposal a juicy tale that he forges into both a formidable thriller and a simultaneous send up of/appreciation for Hollywood. Just as Affleck has proven to be, Argo is versatile in the way it entertains us on multiple levels.
Set during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began in November of 1979, Argo chronicles how the CIA embarked on its “best bad idea” to rescue six Americans who narrowly escaped the clutches of Iranian revolutionaries when they seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The group hides out in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong), but the Iranians, who capture nearly 60 other Americans and hold them hostage, begin piecing the shredded paper together. It’s just a matter of time before they realize six are missing and they start knocking on doors to find and kill them.
The reason for the embassy takeover stemmed from the U.S. government granting asylum to Iran’s unpopular, exiled Shah, whom the Iranians overthrew during the country’s Islamic Revolution. They wanted him returned to the country so he could be tried and hanged for imposing an absolute monarchy during his reign.
Back in the U.S., a committee forms at the CIA to brainstorm ideas for getting the six Americans out alive. Early suggestions range from sending the group bicycles so they can ride 300 miles to the Turkish border; to concocting a story that the Americans are in the country to save starving kids; or that they’re on a mission to plant trees. None of these ideas fly.
Then CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), while watching Beneath the Planet of the Apes with his son, gets an idea: the six Americans are part of a Canadian film crew who flew to Iran to scout locations for a science fiction movie called Argo, a run-of-the-mill Star Wars rip-off. Mendez’s supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), gives him three days to go to L.A. and make his fake movie legit. Mendez teams up with Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who’s worked with the CIA on previous missions, and the two pitch the plan to producer Lester Siegel (a very funny Alan Arkin). Before Mendez knows it, he’s got a script, a press release in Variety, a kick-off party and a table reading. With decisions being made so quickly and relatively easily, part of Mendez can’t help but think he should have gone into the feature film business.
All this sets up the movie’s second half, in which Mendez flies to Tehran, introduces himself to the six Americans and explains the game plan. None of the six – four men and two women, which includes two husband-wife pairs – have much confidence in the scheme, but deep down, they know it’s one of their last chances to make it out. When an incident in the local bazaar doesn’t go so well, we suddenly doubt whether the plan is going to work ourselves, a sentiment that gets exacerbated when Mendez receives word from O’Donnell the mission has been cancelled.
Although history tells us how the situation ends, the film still reaches a sure-fire intensity and, by the end, we’re on the edge of our seats, saying to ourselves, “Come on. Come on. Hurry! Make it!” That Affleck is able to generate such a visceral response from the audience proves he’s the real deal. He only has two other features under his belt, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but he directs with assured confidence and comes off as a seasoned professional. With all three films, he shows a gift for beats and building tension. For Argo in particular, it’s constantly mounting and just on the verge of eruption, but Affleck waits to release it until the end so that all the scenes matter and take on meaning.
Argo is a very good film, one that’s full jabs and zingers, heart and drama, action and suspense. It’s obvious Affleck took some creative license with the ending by suggesting the whole mission boiled down to the very last minute, but because it’s a thriller, we’re willing to accept that. Plus, it’s effective. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim the film is a masterpiece. Despite it being based on a true story, Argo sticks to a conventional formula and embraces the usual style and devices associated with most thrillers. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but for me, it held the movie back from greatness, however slightly. Nevertheless, it’s supremely entertaining, and that’s what counts. Sure, we’d like for all movies to break new ground, but if they can utilize the ground that’s already been established, and utilize it well, that still makes them worthy of our time. Argo is such a film.