Call me a nerd, but I get a little over-excited for period pieces. I also have an appreciation for a good spy thirller. That said, any movie that combines the two will probably be a hit with me. Still, Argo, the latest film from Ben Affleck surpassed my expectations and delivered an outstandingly thrilling plot with a smart approach to history and Hollywood.
Based on a true story, Argo focuses on the “exfiltration” of six Americans who escaped from the American Embassy in Iran when it was taken over in 1979. While the nation watched the developing Iran Hostage Crisis, Mark (Christopher Denham) and Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), Joe (Scoot McNairy) and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishé), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), and Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) hid in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), and his wife Pat (Page Leong). While they anxiously bide their time, the U.S. State Department works on a series of flawed plans to bring them home. As a formality, they run their ideas by the CIA, including agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston). Mendez finds major problems with every plan on the table. It’s not until he’s watching TV with his son that he comes up with the “best bad idea” to get the six stranded Americans home. He calls in a favor from his friend John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar winning Hollywood makeup artist, and John’s friend, legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to pretend to produce Argo, a science fiction movie to be filmed in Iran. Mendez will fly in and retrieve the “house guests” under the cover-story that they’re a Canadian film crew on a location scout. Meanwhile, the Iranians at the U.S. Embassy have people reassembling a photo record of employees, so it’s only a matter of time before they realize six people are missing and have photos to find them. Further, the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand) has figured out that their prolonged “house guests” are not Canadian and they’re not sure if they can trust her, as all their lives are in danger. If Mendez is going to pull-off his absurd plan, he has to do so fast.
Although, as with most films “based on a true story,” some aspects are almost assuredly altered or exaggerated, in terms of plot Argo couldn’t do much better. The story features historical facts, the CIA, Hollywood, and the rescue of hostages. What more could I ask for? The film does a good job, cleverly in storyboard form, of providing some background of the build up to the Iran Hostage Crisis in a way that acknowledges the hand the U.S. played in creating the conflict in Iran without getting bogged down in politics that don’t serve to move the plot of the film forward. As someone who 1) wasn’t alive in 1979 and 2) hasn’t studied the situation since high school, the prologue effectively allowed me to situate myself in a context to really understand the actions of the CIA, the State Department, and the Iranians in the film. Building on that, the story unfolds swiftly, focusing on the six Americans Mendez is working toward rescuing, while using peripheral televisions to continue to contextualize the narrative within the larger political moment. It’s really well done so the film maintains urgency and relevance without getting too heavy. Similarly, the film establishes its context in 1980 without seeming preoccupied with being a period piece.
On top of the tightly composed, compelling screenplay, the cast delivers outstanding work as an ensemble. Argo features a mixture of big names and actors who you know you know, but you don’t know their names. As a whole, they work together so the film feels like a true ensemble piece, not a film where the stars are jockeying for credit. I have often mocked Ben Affleck for his mediocre acting and I still think he’s the weakest performer in the group, but his role mostly demands concerned, frustrated facial expressions, so his performance passes through. Alan Arkan and John Goodman are absolutely wonderful together. They have great comedic chemistry and are totally plausible as snarky Hollywood insiders (I wonder why) who are willing to secretly go along with Mendez’s farce for their compatriots (and, I suspect, for the fun of it). There’s simply not enough room to print individual praises for the whole cast, but the acting, from big names to extras, was stellar.
As the action of the film rose, I was consistently intrigued, curious to see how the story would unfold and whether or not the crazy scheme would work, or even get clearance from the government. During the climax of the film my heart was racing. The story proceeds in a well-paced, exciting arch toward a very satisfying conclusion. I was literally on the edge of my seat. 5/5 stars.
Argo was written by Chris Terrio, based on “Escape from Tehran” by Joshua Bearman, and directed by Ben Affleck. It runs 120 minutes and is rated R for language and some violent images.