On Film and Back in Theaters: Argo

Argo | Dir. Ben Affleck | Score: 7.3

About the only way a yarn as good as the true story of the freeing of the six Americans holed up in the Canadian embassy amid the Iranian uprising back in 1980 could be completely unheard of is if it had been classified by the C.I.A. Which is precisely what it was, up until 1997, when then President Clinton finally declassified it, allowing the amazing truth to come out.

The only truly surprising thing, then, is how long the story took to get made into a Hollywood prestige picture. It pretty much has everything you’d want in an international thriller — intrigue, danger, a cockamamie plan that very nearly goes belly up, an American hero of an intelligence officer, and, best of all, a chance to give props to the Hollywood machine itself, even as it tweaks the inanity of the movie making industry along the way.

Ben Affleck wouldn’t seem the most automatic choice to helm this production, either. True, he’d made two pretty well-regarded features previously (Gone Daddy Gone and the vastly superior The Town), but they’d been based in his Boston-area comfort zone and had suggested precious little of a world outside that clam chowder cocoon. But I’m here to say Affleck has done this amazing story proud and come out with a crowd-pleasing, nervy thriller that will absolutely have something to say come award season.

After the U.S. Embassy was swarmed over back in ’79 — a response to America’s shameful extradition of the Shah, who fled his country after the uprising — there was pretty much chaos in the building, with foreign service officials frantically trying to destroy classified documents in the last few minutes they had, and people scrambling to safety. The only people to actually escape, however, were six officials who thought to sneak out a back door and look for safety amongst the other embassies in the area. The only embassy to heed their call was Canada, whose ambassador (Victor Garber) and his wife (Page Leong) were pivotal to the Americans’ survival.

The six Americans — played by Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Joe Stafford, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé, respectively — were then unable to leave their little bunker for fear of being recognized. It was only a matter of time before the Iranians discovered a discrepancy in the number of people in the office accounted for. Working then with very little time, Tony Mendez (Affleck) a C.I.A. agent expert on “exfils” hatches a complicated scheme that calls for the six to pretend to be a film crew, on location in Iran to shoot a Star Wars ripoff sci-fi flick, called, you might have guessed, “Argo.”

Before he can get to Iran to pull off his caper, however, he has to travel to L.A. and enlist the aid of a couple of movie industry veterans, John Chambers (John Goodman) an award-winning monster prosthetics artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a fast talking Hollywood producer whose best years, it was thought, were behind him. Together, the three men produce a script, movie poster, storyboards and even a little buzz from Variety to authenticate the experience. So armed, Mendez heads to Iran to try and convince his group of prisoners to believe in him enough to pull the scheme together in just several days.

What director Affleck has done is slip past much of the laboriousness of the mission, including the depth of politics involved, and cut right to the suspense thriller aspect of the predicament. Once on the ground in Tehran, the tension continues to mount, and the Americans attempted escape in the airport — with multiple parallel elements, including Iranian security officials finally identifying the missing hostages and U.S. government officials frantically trying to re-engage the operation after it had been deemed too dangerous and shut down — plays like a well-tuned orchestra of tension. Each jangling phone or grinding bus gear only adds to the nerve-wracking anxiety, a point Affleck seems almost gleeful to exploit. He also gets a lot of mileage out of the late-’70s era soundtrack (“When the Levee Broke,” being just one prime example) on top of Alexandre Desplat’s taut Middle-Eastern-tinged score.

If the final product is, perhaps, a bit too light on its feet — so much of the politics are left unexplored in favor of the orchestrated exposition — and too quick to glad-hand all comers rather than explore even tangentially the real roots of the uprising, it is, at least a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners thriller, the likes of which real Hollywood stopped churning out shortly after the era this film explores.

More impressively, Affleck shows a good deal of restraint, intentionally downplaying his own character to better set up everyone one else. Mendez, with his Kris Kristofferson beard, his estranged wife, and his penchant for fast food and cigarettes could have been much larger than life, but Affleck wisely keeps him mostly to the sidelines of the twisty narrative, guiding it without taking a lot of center space. Goodman and Arkin, by contrast, have an enormous amount of fun chewing up their scenes together and spouting lines such as “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.” While that might well be true, even an extremely seasoned and well-learned monkey would have had difficulty putting together a thriller as distinct and sharp-edged as this one.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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