And you thought movies were for entertainment only! “Argo” is the third feature film directed by Ben Affleck. It’s also his best work to date. “Argo” takes place during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and is loosely based on CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez’s bizarre but daring rescue attempt of six US diplomats. For the most part Affleck steers clear of politics instead choosing to focus more on the intensity of the events. This results in a well conceived and focused story that sizzles from the opening scene to the end credits.
The film opens up with what’s arguably the best 20 minutes in cinema so far this year. Affleck instantly sets the stakes high by showing the immediate causes of the unrest in Tehran through a brief but effective opening montage. In 1979 Iran was in chaos after the people had overthrown their unpopular Shah and replaced him with an Islamic Republic. Anti-American sentiment boiled over after the United States granted asylum to the deposed leader. Led by Islamic militants, a mass of people break into the US Embassy and begin taking hostages. Six diplomats manage to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The protesting and subsequent storming of the US Embassy is packed with tension and it’s brilliantly visualized through a mix of old news footage and clever camera work. And I’m not just speaking of the hostile crowd outside of the gates. We see diplomats inside, fully expecting a breach, frantically gathering sensitive documents to incinerate and shred. We see last-minute contacts being made which sends Washington scurrying. All of this is realized as truly riveting, edge-of-your-seat cinema.
As mentioned, six American diplomats manage to escape and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing the militants will soon realize that six Americans are unaccounted for, the State Department brings in Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) to come up with a plan to get them out. He convinces his superiors to allow him to enter Tehran, meet up with the hidden diplomats, and leave the country with them posing as a Canadian film crew scouting out a location for a sci-fi movie. Knowing how thorough the militants will investigate the ruse if suspicious, Mendez is sent to movie make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a semi-successful Hollywood film producer. Together they put all the pieces in place for their fake movie including a title (“Argo”), a script, a production company, and even a movie poster, all intended to give credibility to Mendez’s cover.
The film then follows the planning of the mission, the anxiety of the diplomats in hiding, and the ever-present uncertainty in Washington from those who don’t fully buy into Mendez’s plan. All of this is told by the able hands of Affleck who has certainly established himself as a skilled storyteller. His style fits perfectly with Chris Terrio’s sharp and layered screenplay. Terrio crafts a potent dramatization by adding just enough to the real events to give the narrative a real dramatic pop. A couple of fictional characters are thrown in and there are moments that are purely for dramatic effect. But that’s what cinema does and I can’t imagine this story playing out any better than it does here. It also has the sharp sting of relevance. I couldn’t help but think of the recent Benghazi embassy attack During the film’s opening sequence.
You also can’t help but be impressed by the movie’s impeccable attention to detail in creating a believable late 70s and early 80s atmosphere and vibe. The movie opens with the old late 70s Warner Bros. logo which perfectly set the table for me. Then there are the obvious things – the cars, the clothes, the hairstyles, the technology. But Affleck also employs several clever devices such as original news footage featuring the likes of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel. We see archived footage of President Jimmy Carter as well as authentic newscasts of the turmoil in Iran at the time. It blends in perfectly with the fictional additions to give a true credence to everything we see on-screen.
“Argo” is a rock-solid movie that does all of these things well, and I haven’t even gone into the fantastic performances. Some have said otherwise, but I found Affleck to be a compelling lead. Then you have the incredible supporting work of Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, and Michael Parks. And of course Goodman and Arkin are a blast. The performances are just another strength and this gripping and well-made film. It grabs you and holds you right through to its nail-biting finale. And be sure to stay through the credits for some great images of the real people involved in this amazing rescue attempt. It’s just icing on the cake of one of the better films of 2012.