In his first directing role since 2010’s “The Town,” Ben Affleck once again takes up the position for “Argo,” a fast-paced, highly entertaining film that focuses on the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the late 1970s and early ’80s. “Argo” released Oct. 12 and is loosely based on the Canadian Caper, a top-secret operation between the American and Canadian governments that was successful in rescuing six American diplomats (two married couples included) who were able to escape the U.S. embassy in Tehran before it was overtaken. Classified for 18 years, the mission was finally made public under the Clinton administration. In dealing with the subject, Affleck crafts a smart, suspenseful and, at times, comedic political thriller from beginning to end.
The date is Nov. 4, 1979. The place: Tehran. Iranian citizens riot in the streets, enraged that the United States has allowed the much-hated Shah to enter America after the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. They chant, burn American flags and demand that the Shah be returned for trial. It is here that Affleck makes use of shaky camera movements to convey the sense of chaos in the streets. As six Americans reach the street, the security of the U.S. embassy is breached and hostages are taken — a scene that is reminiscent of the opening minutes of the 2005 film “Munich.” After being turned away by both the British and Australians, the six diplomats are given asylum in the house of the Canadian ambassador.
The film transitions to the U.S. 69 days after the incident. The CIA is racking its brain to come up with a viable idea on how to rescue the six embassy workers. Queue Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA agent who specializes in getting people out of tight situations, operations known as “ex-fils.” This role places Affleck on the other end of the spectrum from his bank-robbing, FBI-evading character from “The Town,” Douglas MacRay. The main focus of the film is Mendez’s plan to create a fake movie and have the six Americans pose as a Canadian film crew scouting a location. The result is “Argo,” a science-fiction adventure movie with a Middle Eastern vibe. For the “Hollywood Option” Mendez seeks the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, channeling the old, cranky Jewish man within.
Despite the movie’s serious source material, it benefits from comedic relief that is mostly delivered from Arkin and Goodman playing caricatures of the Hollywood industry. One delightful sequence involves a conversation between a news reporter and Lester regarding what “Argo” actually stands for. In addition, the viewer gets an idea of how difficult it is to create a $20 million “Star Wars” knockoff in less than a week. This includes procuring a script, storyboards, posters, a production office, and even taking out an ad in Variety magazine. John and Lester agree that “if you want to sell a lie, let the press do it for you.”
While the main appeal of “Argo” is its movie-within-a-movie plot point, it also benefits from a sense of urgency that drives the plot forward. Thanks to a well-crafted screenplay by Chris Terrio, viewers are always holding their breath, wondering what will come next. This is especially true when Mendez lands in 1980s Iran, a place where men are hanged from construction cranes just for having American names in their phone books. Yes, the plan is far from perfect (it’s the “best, worst idea” they’ve got!), but the moments where it seems like the whole thing is about to fall apart only add to the thrills. This suspense persists until the film’s climax, which is sure to leave anyone on the edge of their seats, digging their nails into the upholstery.
Nevertheless, those not knowledgeable in political lingo may have a hard time understanding some of the technical dialogue. In terms of believability, the movie, intercut with authentic television and radio footage from the era, is permeated by a sense of realism. Interviews with U.S. citizens and speeches from Jimmy Carter express the shock and outrage of the United States at the actions of the Iranian people.
There is also a prominent ’70s and early ’80s vibe to the film that is established through clothing, technology, facial hair and the musical stylings of Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Affleck’s use of aerial shots (a technique he made use of in “The Town”) were a nice touch given the scenic location and ethereal view of the snow-covered Alborz mountains out in the distance.
In addition to its script, I was also impressed with the performances in the movie, especially those of the actors playing the six American diplomats who begin to form an outer shell of anxiousness and mistrust. Another notable performance was by Bryan Cranston, who delivers some clever lines of his own as CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell.
Emotion was another key factor to the movie’s appeal. The scenes depicting the emotional torture of American hostages add to the uneasiness and keep viewers rooting for Mendez to succeed with his plan.
For me, the most impressive aspect of the film was the fact that it was based on a true story. The fact that the whole plan was laughable at the time only adds to its credibility. Despite being so fantastical an idea, I knew in the back of my mind that it really took place. In some weird way, that makes the Canadian Caper better than any science-fiction story out there. In addition, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya in early September adds to the film’s believability and relevance in the modern world.
It’s great that the movie with-in-a-move idea does not overpower the actual film. It acts more as an enhancer for both plot and performances. By not taking itself too seriously, the strategy pays homage to the famous science-fiction movies and television shows of the 1970s. This film has made it clear that Ben Affleck has a knack for spinning tales centered on complex schemes and colorful characters. As far as period flicks go, “Argo” is prime real estate.