The real-life mission to rescue six American hostages from Iran in 1979, previously classified by the CIA and now public knowledge, has been realized into Ben Affleck's best film as director. It's both a taut and slick political thriller, as well as a witty Hollywood farce. The film's greatest strength is its ability to switch modes on a dime providing maximum commercial entertainment value and mostly controversy-free political intrigue.
Argo (2012) dir. Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Clea Duvall
By Alan Bacchus
To set things up Affleck crafts a terrific siege sequence wherein the angry Iranian mob storm the embassy in Tehran nabbing 70+ American citizens - a sequence which expertly weaves period news footage with authentically recreated scenes to put us in the time and place of the era. And before that Affleck provides us with a fine history of the background players contributing to the big picture stakes.
Affleck is as good a hero leading man as he is a director here. He plays Tony Mendez, an experienced but lonely family man who has recently split for his wife and child. After dismissing the ill-conceived schemes by the State Dept. brass to get the Americans out of the country, Mendez hatches a plan to get them out via a fake Hollywood movie being made by Canadian filmmakers.
Mendez is thus forced to ingratiate himself with the oddball eccentrics of Hollywood, specifically producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) and special effects artist John Chamber (Goodman) to build the elaborate rouse, which includes finding a real script, drawing real story boards and generating real publicity for Mendez's fake movie, entitled Argo.
Unfortunately, Argo is top-heavy with most of the tension, intrigue and humour at the beginning of the film. By the time Affleck is in the country and executing his plan it's relatively easy-going. Conflict exists between some of the Americans, who are skeptical of the ridiculous scheme. Suspense is manufactured through presumably exaggerated events of ticking-clock jeopardy. At one point the group finds themselves at the airport checking in, but they learn that their tickets have been cancelled by the White House. It's a scene conveniently cut in real-time with frantic phone calls made to the CIA colleagues at home to have their tickets reinstated into the computer system. And the final race to get on the flight and have the plane take off before the Iranian guards can catch them on the tarmac and runway feels completely false and manufactured.
And so sadly, despite the impressive beginning, Argo ends with a slight whimper. And for Canadians it's a feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, as we discover that our great political triumph, taking credit for the heroic escape, was a sham and part of the CIA classified cover-up. These revelations also negate the 1980s Made for TV Escape From Tehran, which dramatizes the Canadian cover-up version.
But this is Ben Affleck firing on all cylinders as a new director, free of his Boston comfort zone and working with a new script that he didn't write.