Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 2 hours, Rated R
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Titus Welliver, Tate Donavan
Written by Chris Terrio, from an article by Joshuah Bearman
Directed by Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town)
It’s a story so absurd it must be true. Based on the true story, Argo is a real film about a fake film called Argo.
At the height of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980 during Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, six Americans were stranded and forced into hiding right in the heart of Iran. The American Embassy had been overtaken by rioting Iranians, upset at the U.S. for harboring their much-despised former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Don’t worry though - this film begins with a quick history lesson that sets the stage and informs any unaware audience members of the intense international situation.
We know this story is real because it came from actual declassified documents (by President Clinton) released in the late 90s. As it goes, several American hostages were taken but six had slipped out without notice. Intelligence left at the Embassy pointed to the fact that there were six missing Americans, so it was only a matter of time before the Iranians caught on that people were missing. These six were holed up in the personal home of the Canadian Ambassador, and the U.S. government back home had very few options, lest they stir up the already active hornet’s nest within Iran.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who is skilled in extraction missions. Tony and the powers-that-be hatch a ridiculous plan to get these six Americans out of Iran – Mendez will go there posing as a film producer scouting filming locations, and they will fly out of Iran together with these six acting as his film crew.
It’s so crazy that it just might work. Or as one person says in the film, it’s the best bad idea that they have come up with. By far.
To pull off this plan, they need to make it look like they are a real operation. So they go to award-winning movie make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to plot out the whole nine yards, complete with a script, posters and artwork (the storyboards were drawn by the legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby, although this is not mentioned in the film). They come up with the idea of Argo – from an old script that is laying around – which is a massive sci-fi movie with a Middle-Eastern flair.
In Ben Affleck’s Argo, this portion of the film is slick and funny, as they work at creating their film and convincing the U.S government that this is their best option. The latter half of the film – once Mendez actually arrives in Iran – is when Argo – Affleck’s film - takes off.
Ben Affleck was at one point ridiculed for his acting ability, although he has remained an A-List star. With his previous two films – Gone Baby Gone and The Town – Affleck quickly established himself as…brace yourself…one of the best directors working today.
If Argo isn’t perfect – the middle portion of the film seems to drag – it does show Affleck’s growing acumen as a director of suspense. Since much of this film is done in secret, with people sneaking around, wearing disguises, there isn’t much that actually happens. A group of people pose as a film crew and then go to the airport and fly home. It points to Affleck’s mastery of his craft that this straight-forward idea – people going to the airport and flying home – ends up as one of the most suspenseful, breath-taking sequences of the year.
Argo is a very well-made film from a gifted director. Who would have thought? The story here is the real thrill, that this actually happened and that the plan somehow worked. As the film states, it is a blazing example of two countries working together for common good. With such a big story though, some characterization suffers. We see, for example, a sub-plot with Mendez and his son that seems shoe-horned into this much larger story.
Argo also works as a timely film, as current tensions are raised between the U.S. and Iran. It stands up as an example of how peaceful – albeit secretive and maniacal – diplomacy can sometimes be the best option.
This time of year, I have my critical radar up to decipher which films are this year’s best. Argo is a very good movie, cementing Ben Affleck as having arrived as a director of suspense. But for me, it falls a bit short of greatness.
Stay through a portion of the end credits to see real pictures of the Argo mission, to see just how true to life Affleck kept the film’s look. You’ll also get a sound-bite from President Carter himself.
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