“Argo” is the name of a fake movie that never got made. It was the high profile cover story for a group of six Americans to escape Iran in 1980 with the help of the CIA. The famous real-life incident was known for many years as a Canadian operation, due to the CIA’s necessity to keep it classified. Now, under the direction of Ben Affleck, we get a chance to see what really went down during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The movie covers the events from the attack on the American Embassy in Iran all the way up to the covert “exfiltration” mission. Six of the Embassy employees manage to escape and are taken in by the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). They remained hidden in his home for weeks while all over the country people were hunting for them. Word reaches the CIA, and they are tasked with getting these people out. Ideas are flimsy at best, with one of the more practical being an impossible escape over the countryside by bicycle. Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) brings in CIA Specialist Tony Mendez (played by bearded Ben Affleck) to consult and brainstorm, and Mendez comes up with the idea of a film crew cover story.
In order to make this incredibly risky cover work, he’s forced to collaborate with actual film people in Hollywood, including Oscar winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). They set up a fake film studio, receiving actual backing, hold press readings in full costumes, and all for a movie that will never be. It was a time of “Star Wars” knockoffs, and thus “Argo” was born; a high budget sci-fi fantasy that would film on location in the Middle East for their exotic set pieces. Even in a time of extreme crisis, who would question a film studio’s desire to cash in on a popular trend?
All the acting is solid and believable from the strong cast of actors, including supporting roles like Bryan Cranston. Even Ben Affleck, who is clearly not a Latino despite playing a character with the last name of Mendez, turns in a good performance. I find it amusing that Ben Affleck, who’s starred in numerous terrible movies, finds some of his best work in the ones he directs. I guess if he wanted a decent role, he just had to make the movie himself. There’s also a pointless shot of him shirtless in this. I wonder if that was something he thought audiences just needed to see?
In my review of “The Town”, I referred to Ben Affleck as a competent new director, but after seeing his latest efforts, I think it’s safe to say he’s far more than competent. He tells the story exactly the way he wants to tell it, also showing he has a clear talent for pacing, balancing humor and drama, and building suspense. There’s only a moment or two where the actions feel arranged or contrived for the sake of building on suspense.
I also have to admire the look of the film. He films it with a grainy, almost film stock quality, and it makes the movie seem as though it were actually made and shot in 1980. This specific look and subdued color palette actually makes the seventies fashions and vehicles seem less artificial and more natural to the setting and times. The realistic and understated camera work hearkens back to political dramas such as “All the President’s Men”, making for a very unique visual style that isn’t used often today.
The action is also both suspenseful and gripping, particularly in the last twenty minutes. The mission is essentially cancelled, forcing Mendez to go ahead with it on his own. Their journey through the airport is like walking on thin ice, where any wrong step could result in disaster. It only gets worse when their appearances arise suspicion in almost every guard in the building. So much could have gone wrong, and their every advance is almost out of sheer luck. It’s remarkable that even knowing how the story ends, since this was a well reported incident, it’s still easy to be on the edge of your seat, wondering how in the hell these people are going to get out their situation.
“Argo” is far and away Ben Affleck’s best film to date, and after only three movies, he’s already building a respectable film catalog for his career as a director. It’s crowd pleasing, engaging, and is one of the most exciting and intense spy dramas in recent memory. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.