You’ve got to hand it to Ben Affleck. Fresh off the success of 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town, his latest directorial/starring effort, Argo, is a riveting work of film that completely immerses you in the tensions of a particular time and place in world history, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Affleck achieves this through meticulous recreations of iconic images and memorable performances from an all-star cast.
Argo focuses its attention on what came to be known at the time as the “Canadian Caper”, the story of six American diplomats who escaped from the U.S. Embassy while it was being taken over and hid for 79 days in the residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor until they were “exfiltrated” from Tehran in a joint operation between the CIA and the government of Canada.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” expert who, along with his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), is initially called in by the U.S. State Department to provide input on their plan to get the “houseguests” — the diplomats staying in Taylor’s home — out of Tehran. After pointing out the problems with the State Department’s plan, they challenge Mendez to come up with a better one.
Mendez delivers, and the plan he concocts is regarded by everyone who hears it as nothing short of insane: Mendez would fly into Iran posing as a Canadian film producer scouting locations for a science fiction film “with a middle eastern feel”, convince the government there that he was meeting a Canadian film crew already in country scouting, and then fly out of Tehran with the diplomats posing as the crew. When presenting “The Hollywood Option” to the Secretary of State and President Carter’s Chief of Staff, O’Donnell sums it up best: “This is the best bad idea we have, by far.”
Certainly inspires confidence in the brain trust running the Central Intelligence Agency, doesn’t it?
Argo works both as a thoroughly authentic-feeling period piece and as a thriller. It’s tense from the first images we’re given of the protesting Iranian students swarming over the wall at the U.S. embassy right through to the film’s climax at Tehran’s airport. Affleck meticulously shoots the action from angles that evoke the images Americans saw on their televisions during nightly news broadcasts at the time, of Iranian women dressed in chadors carrying machine guns, portraits of the Ayatollah Khomeini looming over the streets and carried high on placards by his supporters, and of American hostages on their knees with bags over their heads being interrogated as spies, all narrated at times by the authoritative voices of the news we remember: Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Koppel. Though certainly some dramatic license was taken in terms of the depiction of these events and places, you never question the authenticity of what you’re watching, because the sights and sounds are so well reproduced.
Complementing these arresting visuals is the film’s cast, which is for the most part spot-on in terms of the likenesses of the actors to their real-life counterparts. The actors themselves build on that by turning in very compelling performances. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, as veteran Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel (a fictional character), respectively, are particularly enjoyable as the Hollywood insiders who help Mendez create the illusion of a working Hollywood production, right down to live script reads, stories in the Hollywood trades, and casting calls. Goodman and Arkin get the best lines in the film, without question — their cynical quips about how to get things done in Tinsel Town provide welcome comic relief to break up Argo‘s ever-mounting tension.
As the film’s star, Affleck brings just the right amount of gravity and thoughtfulness to his portrayal of Mendez. He’s a man whose work has distanced him from his own family and who tries to make up for that by taking personal responsibility for getting other people whose lives are in danger home to their families. It’s a solid, credible performance from an actor who just a few short years ago had become the butt of so many jokes about bad acting and bad movies (think Daredevil, Jersey Girl and Gigli). It’s a welcome change, certainly, and nowadays if we need to make a joke about an actor who seems incapable of making good movies or choices about roles, there’s always Nicolas Cage.
Score: 5 out of 5
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Victor Garber. Directed by Ben Affleck.
Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for language and some violent images.