Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Runtime: 120 minutes
It’s always a joy to watch a film that is based on a true story so unbelievable that it just couldn’t be a work of fiction. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort focuses on one such tale, a CIA case that was not declassified until nearly 20 years later in 1997.
Argo begins in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. The film faithfully reenacts the depiction of a large group of Iranian revolutionaries protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The protests grow larger and more violent, and eventually the mob swarms the embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage. A group of six men and women manage to escape before this happens, and they are eventually taken in by the Canadian embassy.
Faced with an international crisis, the U.S. State Department begins looking for ways to extract the escaped six before the Iranians realize they are missing. This is where CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. Faced with a number of unfeasible extradition suggestions (one of which entails giving the group some bicycles and telling them to bike 300+ miles to the Turkey border), Mendez comes up with one of his own: pretend to be a Canadian film scout who is visiting Iran as a possible shooting location. In return, he will bring back the six Americans as members of his film crew.
As the “best bad idea” the CIA has, Mendez gets approval from his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and heads to Hollywood to set up a fake studio. With the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a master makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer, the trio set up a phony office to lend credibility to the project. They even invite the press to their fake shooting in order to get additional publicity. It’s a wild idea, no doubt, but Mendez is determined to see it through, and he flies to Tehran in hopes of accomplishing his goal.
Now, since this is based on a true story, many will already know the outcome of the film. Pay no mind to this — knowing what happens does not lessen this film in any way possible. As a director, Affleck knows how to ramp up the suspense, creating a number of tense, memorable moments that will leave viewers doubting their recollections of the actual events.
Affleck also nailed the 1970s setting. Everything here is expertly portrayed, from the absurd fashion choices — complete with shaggy hair, thick moustaches and large-rimmed glasses — to what looks and feels like authentic archival footage of the revolution. Seriously, the man did his homework.
It helps to have a strong, witty screenplay, especially one that is delivered by an impressive arsenal of top Hollywood stars. Affleck shines in the lead role, but it’s especially fun to watch the group of character actors attached to the project. Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin (who gets to deliver the film’s most memorable line), Kyle Chandler, Philip Baker Hall and others all turn in memorable performances, even if they are ever so small.
It’s hard to find fault in Argo. Perhaps more emphasis could have been placed on character development when it comes to the American Six, but they are just pieces in what is a large, encompassing operation. As far as historical films go, this is a great one, and it is one of the year’s best. Don’t be surprised if Argo comes up in quite a few categories in this year’s awards season.