In 1979, the Iranian people and the Revolutionary Guard overthrew the Shah of Iran and his government, long considered puppets of the US, and took control of the country. When the Shah was granted asylum by the US, a wave of protests swept the country, culminating in the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the capture of the personnel inside. For more than a year, the Embassy officials were held hostage in Iran, defining 1979-80 and becoming a major element in the election of Ronald Reagan.
This is not that story. This about the other guys.
While the rest of the Embassy personnel were being rounded up, six individuals managed to escape the compound and found sanctuary at the home of the Canadian ambassador. While they waited more than six months for word of their fates, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) was working on a plan to get them out. A plan that revolved around the world believing that Canadian filmmakers were thinking about making a ridiculous Star Wars rip-off in the Iranian wilderness called Argo.
Like any “based on a true story” film, no one involved is interested in giving a dry history lesson or recreating the actual people involved. They want just enough real life to get you interested, and then it’s off into movie-land, much like the jaunt Tony takes after convincing his boss (Brian Cranston) that his bad ideas is the best chance the Embassy Six have. Just in conception, Argo is a Hollywood wet dream. With the world falling apart and lives on the line, it’s the filmmakers literally to the rescue.
But it works. As easy as it could have been for Argo to turn into a ridiculous farce playing at being serious, Affleck and his cast provide just the right amount of self-deprecating humor, righteous worry, and nail-biting suspense to create one of the best arguments for the studio film this year.
As surprising as it was five years ago when Gone Baby Gone came out, it shouldn’t surprise anyone by now that Ben Affleck is a pretty good director, with a good grip on how to tell a story and particularly on how to build suspense. Personally, Baby is still his best achievement, but there’s no question he’s brought everything he’s learned with him to Argo, and it shows.
There’s a lot of thematic ground to cover, from the bureaucratic minefields of the CIA and the White House to the acknowledged ridiculousness of Hollywood to the neuroses-inducing tension of being an American in Tehran in 1979. If any one of those pieces moves just a hair out of place, the entire house of cards would come tumbling down. To his credit, Affleck the director never lets you see him sweat as he juggles madly for two hours to keep every element spinning.
He, and the film, seems most engaged in the thriller aspects, and the opening sequence of the storming of the Embassy is what is meant by a “tour de force,” if you ever wonder what it means when someone else next uses that empty phrase. Affleck and his story spend most of the next hour getting to the point where Mendez will step off a plane into Tehran in the middle of the Revolution.
In between, we get to spend a lot of time in Hollywood as he sets up his cover identity as a producer. It could be hopelessly incongruous to what comes after (and to some degree, it’s supposed to be, as Affleck cuts between a Hollywood party and life in Tehran), but Affleck the director steps aside for the most part and floats on the charm of Alan Arkin as a seen-it-all producer who will drag Argo the fake movie into reality, no matter what it takes.
The downside is, despite the film’s obvious focus, the Hollywood segments will often stick with you long after Tinseltown has been left behind, as it’s the one time the characters get to be the stars. The other elements of Argo are so highly plot-driven that even Mendez himself gets the barest of brush strokes in his description, and few of the actual personnel to be rescued are actively differentiated from one another. By comparison, Arkin’s larger-than-life nature encompasses everything around him. It doesn’t hurt that he gets most of the humor, whereas Mendez seems stuck in “dour” no matter what the situation.
For what misses there are, however, Affleck the storyteller knows how to make an audience bite its fingernails when he needs to, and they’ll spend the last half hour, when the escapees make their run for the border, on the edge of seats. And if it’s sometimes just a little too pat, who cares? Like Hollywood, Argo is a little bit of reality covering up a big heaping mound of bullshit, and we like it that way.
Cast: Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel; John Goodman as John Chambers; Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan; Victor Garber as Ken Taylor; Tate Donovan as Bob Anders; Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek; Michael Parks as Jack Kirby; Tom Lenk as Rodd; Christopher Stanley as Tom Ahern; Taylor Schilling as Christine Mendez; Richard Kind as Max Klein; Titus Welliver as Jon Bates; Rory Chochrane as Lee Schatz; Devansh Mehta as Matt Sanders; Omid Abtahi as Reza; Kerry Bishe as Kathy Stafford; Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek.