“Argo,” the newest endeavor from actor/director Ben Affleck, is a surprisingly well-crafted chronicle of the covert CIA mission to rescue six Americans from peril during the Iranian Revolution.
Though this true life story is only a small sliver of the events of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of the late 1970s/early 1980s, Affleck expertly magnifies the omnipresent climate of apocalypse typical of this era in American history.
The film opens as the American Embassy in Tehran is overrun by supporters of the Iranian Revolution, enraged that their ousted “Shah” (king) had been granted refuge in America. During the takeover, six embassy employees manage to escape and find sanctuary in the home of a Canadian diplomat, but they are far from safe as it is only a matter of time before they are discovered and most likely executed. Their only hope is CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), who concocts an outlandish scheme to sneak the six escapees out of Iran in plain sight disguised as a Canadian movie crew scouting filming locations around Tehran – a plan so outrageous that it could only happen in the movies. Though they are met with some paralyzing adversities, Mendez successfully shanghais the group out of the danger zone, spearheading the first efforts of the United States in its retrieval of the embassy hostages.
For Affleck, as a filmmaker, this movie is a large improvement from his narcissistic transformation into an actor/director in 2010’s “The Town,” which was a disappointing sophomore effort after his directorial debut in the powerful 2007 crime drama “Gone Baby Gone.” This time around, Affleck proves that he can utilize his considerable chops as an actor to flesh out a film that is historically accurate without being overindulgent. The scopic cinematography and seamless shot composition skillfully augment the suspenseful atmosphere while keeping the viewer engaged in the scene-by-scene tension. With a brilliant script from writer Chris Terrio that blends snippets of black comedy with credible political jargon, this movie is both entertaining and thrilling – a major accomplishment for any filmmaker, particularly if he’s the star of his own film.
Though Affleck directs and stars in this movie, he is by no means the crux of it. “Argo” is carried successfully by the entire cast from opening scene to final credits, and Affleck’s performance as Mendez is compelling but wholly unobtrusive in the overall context of the film. The primary character focus is on the six fugitives whose emotional portrayals run the gamut from despair to relief with genuine believability. Their depth and development throughout the film is captivating enough to engage the audience on a humanitarian level, making each of the half dozen refugees someone worth caring about. Though the audience knows the outcome of the story from the very beginning, it is nonetheless an enthralling and tense ride through the course of events that culminates in the final daring escape.
Despite the fact that this movie is primarily a politically charged thriller, there are a few nuances of humor that lighten the dynamic atmosphere. The acerbic wit of silver screen veterans Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who co-star as members of the fake movie’s production team, add an element of comedic relief to a background that is otherwise very serious and further demonstrates Affleck’s ability to blend genres in a manner that compliments and enhances the story at hand.
Aside from the entertainment value, this movie is a must-see because of its geopolitical context: lasting for over 400 days, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was a profoundly humiliating episode for the United States that ultimately annihilated Jimmy Carter’s presidency and further heightened tensions between the U.S. and the Middle East. The movie’s affecting coda is peppered with clips of real broadcasts and photographs from the era that serve to highlight the authenticity of the events portrayed, as many of the film’s scenes were based off of these bits of ephemera. Even those who are not fans of the genre will thoroughly enjoy “Argo” for its swift and dynamic storytelling and its stark parallels to modern society. “Argo” proves to be a brilliant endeavor from Affleck that is more than worth the admission price.
Emily A. Brightman can be reached at [email protected]