NOTE: This review first appeared on this site on September 7, 2012 after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits theaters this weekend.
It’s 1979 and the Iranian revolution is reaching a tipping point. Outside the U.S. Embassy in Iran, a group of anti-American protesters have gathered as they have so many days prior, but today (November 4) is different than the rest.
The raging mob eventually hops the fence, they’re beating on the doors, breaking windows and soon gain access to the building. Meanwhile, inside, as a result of the insurgence, papers are being shredded and people are trying to escape. Few manage to get away. In fact, while everyone else is held hostage inside, only six get out the backdoor and find refuge at the Canadian Embassy. To show their face outside would mean suicide.
Thus is the set up for Ben Affleck‘s Argo, a CIA thriller based on a declassified story. The focus is the mission to save said six employees before their identities are revealed, the result of which would most likely end in them being publicly executed. The intensity of the situation I’m describing is mirrored in Affleck’s film where he directs and also stars, playing Tony Mendez, a CIA “exfiltration” specialist brought in to help conjure a solution to the problem.
After suggestions ranging from sending the six to the Turkish border on bikes or getting them fake teacher’s IDs, Mendez comes up with what is ultimately referred to as the “best bad idea” they have. Referred to as “The Hollywood Solution”, his idea involves setting up a fake film production, flying into Iran and extracting the six under the guise of being members of his film crew on a location scout for their fake fantasy project titled Argo.
As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s based on a true story, a fact that gives the film so much more weight even though plenty of dramatic license is taken to increase the overall intensity.
Argo, however, extends beyond its true life plot. The film is a perfect storm when it comes to performance, production design, cinematography and screenplay. Affleck immediately sells the ’70s vibe using the old Warner logo and a mixture of archival video from the scene outside the Embassy and new, grainy footage shot for the film. The costumes, makeup and hair are perfect and as the credits role you’ll see just how exacting the production was in making each member of the cast look almost identical to their real world counterpart.
Along with Affleck the cast is an amazing gathering of talent, some of which are hardly recognizable underneath their facial hair and long 70s ‘dos. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the Hollywood connections. Arkin is blessed with several excellent lines, coining the phrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” (a real phrase, not made up for the movie) along with an amazing monologue opposite Richard Kind playing a Hollywood agent. Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishe, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane and Christopher Denham play the six trapped Embassy employees and all fit their respective roles, working well as a distressed collective, letting the audience in on their concerns.
Back home in the CIA and State Department Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Chris Messina get the bulk of the attention with Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall showing up briefly for a great scene in which Cranston refers to them as the “two old guys from ‘The Muppets'”, which brings me to Chris Terrio’s script.
Terrio has never had a feature script of his own produced. He put in a little work on the 2005 film Heights, but Argo is all his own, adapted from Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran“. A combination of Terrio’s words and the cast Affleck assembled makes me want to see what else the 35-year-old screenwriter has in store in the coming years. Argo is not only loaded with tension, it’s got a lot of great moments and pieces of dialogue that clearly show Terrio has a knack for assembling a story.
The only major concern I had with the film is that it sags a bit in the middle. Affleck is quick to set up his story and the finale is loaded with so many tense twists and turns you can hardly breathe. But, somewhere in-between he gets stuck with the nuts and bolts of the mission and the film plateaus for about 20-30 minutes. Affleck clearly cares about the smaller moments in the film, which I can respect, but maybe a snip here or there would have tightened up the narrative just a bit.
In that respect, the one thing I specifically notice about Affleck is the impression every screenplay he chooses to make is one that interests him immensely. He’s not making movies just to make money, he truly has a passion for telling the stories he’s telling and you can feel that when you’re watching his films. He also has a signature style I can’t yet put my figure on, but it’s a certain capacity for measured storytelling along with a concentration on making sure the audience never feels as if they are not in store for an entertaining ride.
Some may call into question the veracity of the dramatic finale, but in order to truly get the audience to feel the tension those involved in the situation must have felt some dramatic license must be taken. Affleck definitely ratchets up the ticking time clock scenario as one move leads to the next and every second counts. You’d be right to doubt whether everything played out in real life as it did on screen, but I’d say Affleck gets as close as one possibly can to recreating the level of craziness the group faced while trying to escape.
With Argo, Affleck has delivered yet again and will certainly find ardent supporters to push the Oscar agenda, but forget the awards for a second and let this one wash over you and just wait and see how hard you’re gripping the armrests on your chair as the final seconds tick away.