Exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez received the highest honor that can possibly be awarded in Intelligence for his work during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, and the man who played him and directed his story in “Argo,” Ben Affleck, will find himself quite decorated as well if he continues to make films at this quality of a clip.
The “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” director has — at this point — completely erased his image as stale actor of the early 2000s and replaced it with a reputation as one of the most exciting directors working today. Those first two films depicted a gritty, hard-nosed America as seen through blue-collar Boston, and though “Argo” is a story that takes place halfway across the world and is so inconceivable it could only be true, he finds a way to make it unmistakably real and palpable.
After explaining the events leading up to the crisis in clever storyboarding fashion, “Argo” opens with an intense depiction of the invasion of the U.S. embassy and shows how six Americans escaped and took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Several months later we meet Mendez, who is brought in to consult on the CIA’s current plan to get the six out. After tearing holes in their various strategies, Mendez eventually concocts a plan to disguise them as a Canadian film crew scouting for shooting locations.
In order for it to be a convincing cover, Mendez must build an entire movie from the ground up. He enlists the help of skilled Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and wisecracking producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to find a script and create some tangible buzz and legitimacy surrounding the film. They select a script called “Argo,” a bad “Star Wars” and “Flash Gordon” knockoff that calls for exotic locales with a Middle Eastern flair.
“Argo” (the real film) is a tense journey from start to finish. Even for those familiar with the true story and the outcome will find reason to pause and think, “they do get home safely, right?” Affleck keeps the suspense high by pristinely communicating the stakes should they fail. Brutal punishment and likely certain death awaits them if so much as anyone suspects them of being American spies. Affleck captures the unstable and erratic nature of the angry Iranian mobs, drawing upon imagery from actual television footage and photos taken during the duration of the crisis from ’79 to ’81.
But much of what makes the film work can primarily be found in Chris Terrio’s script, which is based on an article by Joshuah Bearman. It delivers the story in such a succinct manner and uses sharp and illustrative language to communicate the nature of the situation and the characters dealing with it. It’s also impressively witty and clever even if a bit contrived in order to be so. Consequently, Arkin is at the top of his game as the lovable scuzzball producer, and Affleck, Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s CIA supervisor also benefit. This top-shelf ensemble cast adds every bit of legitimacy to the film as an Intelligence thriller.
Although incredibly subtle, there are numerous nods to the sci-fi films and TV shows of the ‘70s. Geeks will appreciate a little shout out to a famous sci-fi show of the time, but otherwise, these films are the unsung hero of the movie. Without the ridiculousness of the exotic Martian locales and other hallmarks of science fiction, we would’ve all but surely failed to extract the hiding Americans from Iran.
More down to earth and part of what gives “Argo” broader appeal is the way that it feels quintessentially American (with all apologies to the Canadians and their instrumental role in the events both real and depicted). Affleck takes the time to show moving imagery of how we responded to the crisis at home with the yellow ribbons and as far as saving the day, the film depicts us as not having so much pride that we couldn’t let the Canadians get all the credit. Given international relations as they are now, it’s refreshing to see this golden example of governmental collaboration.
“Argo” is a golden example in its own right. Movies based on true stories don’t get more compelling than this. Despite some incredibly suspicious timing as far as avoiding the bad guys and other stuff we’re more accustomed to from works of total fiction, this film represents a crisp, clean and maybe most importantly, accessible execution of a bureaucratic thriller, especially one based on true events. The delivery of the story is so impeccable that it ought to be used to teach writing for film. We don’t ask all our films to be revelatory, but they should all be as thoroughly engaging as “Argo.”
It’s true that “Argo” isn’t loaded with big ideas. It might be the antithesis to another of this year’s likely awards contenders, “The Master.” But what it lacks in themes and conversation starters it more than makes up for in intrigue, suspense and intelligent entertainment.
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Chris Terrio, Joshuah Bearman (article)
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston