Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez
Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell
Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel
John Goodman as John Chambers
Victor Garber as Ken Taylor
Tate Donovan as Bob Anders
Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek
Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford
Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz
Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek
Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford
Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan
Chris Messina as Malinov
Zeljko Ivanek as Robert Pender
Titus Welliver as Bates
Directed by Ben Affleck
The great combination of spy drama, historical drama, and Hollywood comedy make “Argo” an interesting film. Combine that with great production design and an excellent cast and you have a movie worth checking out on the big screen.
“Argo” is based on a true story.
In 1979, the Iranian revolution has reached its peak and in Tehran, protesters storm the American Embassy. As the embassy staff is taken hostage, six Americans are able to secretly escape and make their way to the house of the Canadian ambassador. They are safe, but unable to escape the country. While the other hostages are harassed and paraded on TV, the six Americans can do nothing but hide and wait for rescue.
However, getting the Americans out of Iran is easier said than done. At the CIA, several ridiculous rescue ideas are suggested such as riding bicycles across the border. Nothing seems remotely feasible until Tony Mendez comes up with a bold idea. He will enter Iran under the cover of a Canadian movie producer scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. He’ll then meet up with the six Americans, give them new Canadian identities, and then fly them out as members of his scouting crew. But to have any chance of success, Tony must get the help of Hollywood contacts and make it look like their movie is legitimate. As time runs out, the elaborate ruse unfolds, but the lives of the six Americans and Tony himself will depend on the cover working.
“Argo” is rated R for language and some violent images.
Anyone old enough to remember the years 1979 and 1980 are going to enjoy “Argo” on a level different from those who don’t. I actually remember this time and many of the events shown in the film. I remember the yellow ribbons around the oak trees. I remember avocado colored rotary phones. I remember seeing screaming Iranian protesters on the TV and images of the Ayatollah. Like Mendez’s kid, I also had Star Wars sheets on my bed and Kenner Star Wars action figures lining my shelves. So seeing all of this in “Argo” brought back a flood of memories from my childhood and made the film all the more enjoyable… well, except for the screaming protesters.
But even if you weren’t around back then, there’s a great political / spy drama in “Argo.” The idea of being stranded in a foreign land full of people that want to kill you is utterly terrifying and it doesn’t take long to understand the full peril that the six Americans are in. Ben Affleck does a good job of painting the desperate situation while giving them enough character moments to let us know their thoughts and feeling about being in hiding for so long. Things are equally tense back at the CIA as they brainstorm about how to get them out of the country. Seeing some of the phenomenally bad ideas being floated around makes you wonder about the competency of the CIA leadership at the time. But eventually they come up with the idea that eventually wins out.
When the movie cover enters the story, “Argo” shifts gears dramatically. It goes from a tense drama to a lighthearted poke at Hollywood. We see John Goodman as John Chambers working on a terrible B-movie. We see Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, a tough producer that isn’t afraid to tell anyone off. We see greedy agents, pushy production assistants, sexy starlets, and more. Every aspect of the business is made fun of, but Mendez finds a way to make it work in his favor to accomplish his rescue mission. (A fun side note the storyboards Mendez used to convince the Iranians that he was doing a “Star Wars” type of movie were actually drawn by Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, Thor, the Avengers, etc.) While it might seem odd to combine a spy thriller with a Hollywood comedy, it actually works well. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter they go great together. I saw Jon Favreau call it “Homeland” meets “Get Shorty” and that’s actually a spot-on description of the film.
“Argo” features a pretty great cast. While John Goodman is fun as John Chambers (the man behind the “Planet of the Apes” makeup), it’s Alan Arkin that really steals the show. He’s bold, he tells people off, he has a huge ego, and he knows his business. But Arkin manages to give his character heart as he talks about his family and his desire to use his fame to help do something meaningful. It’s a great role and I expect you’ll see him mentioned a lot during the awards season. Bryan Cranston also is good as Jack O’Donnell, the man supporting Mendez back home. He echoes the audience’s frustration with the bureaucracy within the White House and the CIA, so he quickly becomes a favorite .sideburns and all. Other notable supporting cast members include Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, and Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek.
I also have to mention the production design on “Argo.” They amazingly recreated 1980 Tehran with the protesters, locations, and sets. Then the costumes and hairstyles perfectly recreate that horrible 70’s/80’s fashion. Sci-fi fans will also get a huge kick out of seeing costumes from “Buck Rogers,” “Flash Gordon,” and more at a scene featuring a table reading of the “Argo” script. But a big treat for me as a “Star Wars” fan was seeing all of the toys, posters, and sheets in the finale of the film. You realize what a big part “Star Wars” played in inspiring the idea of this cover story, and Affleck obviously emphasizes that on the big screen.
What Didn’t Work:
While I think Ben Affleck did a great job as the director of “Argo,” I think he may have been the one misstep in the casting. As Tony Mendez, his performance is really flat and understated compared to the other characters in the film. Maybe that’s the way Tony Mendez is in real life. It certainly doesn’t make sense for a CIA operative to draw attention to himself, but the end result is that Affleck seems to sleepwalk through this tense movie compared to everyone else. This potential miscasting is emphasized during the credits when photos of the cast and their real life counterparts are shown side by side. Everyone looks amazingly similar to the real people except for Ben Affleck and Tony Mendez. Maybe Affleck should have stayed behind the camera for this one.
“Argo” does suffer from some pacing issues, especially in the third act. The first act opens with the dramatic raid on the American embassy. The second act features the amusing creation of the fake sci-fi movie. When the story shifts back to Tehran for the third act, it somewhat loses steam. This is partially due to the fact that “Argo” is anti-climactic if you are at all familiar with the real historical events. (Lincoln is shot and killed in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”! You’ve been spoiled!) Every bit of tension they try to create in that third act is lessened a lot when you know how it will all end. It also makes part of the finale a lot cheesier as you can tell what parts are a Hollywood fabrication in an attempt to make things more exciting. In the end the journey is more interesting than the destination.
The Bottom Line:
If you like spy dramas, political dramas, or historical dramas then “Argo” is something you’re going to want to see on the big screen. And if you’re a sci-fi movie buff or a fan of “Star Wars,” then “Argo” should be a film you make a point to check out.