The promotional materials have done a great job of spelling out the framework of Ben Affleck’s “Argo”.
It’s a historical thriller, set during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Six individuals managed to escape the US Embassy as it was being stormed by Iranians (during the hostage crisis of 1979), and now need help to get out of the country.
What the marketing can’t convey though, is the pervasive atmosphere of tension that director Ben Affleck manages to create. “Argo” is an intense and occasionally humorous docudrama that adds to Affleck’s burgeoning streak of excellent projects.
During the storming of the US Embassy in Iran on November 4th, 1979, six American diplomats escaped the siege by walking out a back door to a street unoccupied by protesters. They walked away and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber).
The 52 Americans remaining at the embassy were captured during the siege and would be held hostage for 444 days.
When word of the six’s escape reaches the CIA, they begin working on a plan to exfiltrate them from the country. Should the Iranian Republican Guards discover them, they’re certain to face execution, and the CIA has learned that the Iranians holding the embassy have begun reconstructing shredded papers in order to try to discover the identities of the missing six.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck). Tony is an “exfil” expert. With the tentative support of his direct superior (Bryan Cranston), Mendez champions a plan that sounds outrageous… smuggle the six escapees out of the country by pretending to be a Canadian film crew. The plan’s primary strength is its outright brazenness. As opposed to attempting to sneak them across the border in clandestine fashion, Mendez will set them up with passports and cover stories and then walk them straight through an airport, security checkpoints and all.
He realizes however, that in order for his story to hold, it needs a high degree of authenticity. The Iranian government is certain to check into things at several points along the way. Thus, he has to travel to Hollywood and obtain the aid of John Chambers (John Goodman), famed make-up man, who has worked with the CIA before. The two of them enlist Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together, the three launch a cheap pre-production of a fake film. They create storyboards, marketing materials, hold casting calls, place ads in Variety, etc.
All that’s left is for Mendez to fly directly into the most hostile, anti-American country in the world and fly out with more people than he came in with.
It’s a riveting, tension-filled affair. Affleck does a remarkable job of recreating the events of the Crisis via reproduction and historical footage. As the angry mobs storm the embassy, there’s a remarkable degree of authenticity and believability. It’s a dangerous, angry, frightening situation. One that echoes throughout the entire film. He also does an incredible job of painting a picture of a country in the throes of revolutionary and anti-American fever. Through what he shows surrounding the hostage crisis and the occasional interspersed historical news bulletin, the audience absolutely gets the sense of a nation gripped with rage. There’s an utterly hostile environment outside the door of the Ambassador’s house, and it’s slowly closing in. You’re given the sense that the six escapees could face death stepping out of the safe house just for being Westerners, let alone being escaped American embassy workers.
The Hollywood segments of the film add some much-needed levity… it breaks up the super tense tone of things for a while. When Affleck’s Mendez works on setting up the film, there’s a great deal of humor involved, and a good deal of Hollywood skewering. Arkin and Goodman, of course, are great, and it’s a lot of fun to see them carry on the mission of pretending to make a ridiculous script with a straight face.
“Argo” is all about the tension, though. It’s a very intense film. It permeates every aspect of the movie. There are six lives on the line… seven once Mendez goes in… and the film never lets you forget it. It’s a solidly constructed, historically factual thriller that’s directed expertly by Affleck. If I had any complaint with it, it might be that it plays its cards a little TOO close to the vest. It’s good that nothing goes over the top just for the sake of it, but there were a couple of times where I thought it was being a little too “low key”. Still, it’s a taut, riveting movie. Easily recommendable. It was one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, and it did not disappoint.