The November 4th, 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Iran by students and other revolutionaries was front page news around the world as 52 American hostages were held captive. Negotiations were attempted and military strikes were considered, but the crisis didn’t end until well over a year later when they were all finally released. Lesser known, and in fact unknown to the public until 1997 when it was declassified, is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy that November day to risk capture and possible execution as they awaited an unlikely rescue.
It turned out to be a very unlikely rescue indeed.
Argo is Ben Affleck‘s third film as director, and while it lacks the darkly emotional impact of Gone Baby Gone and the kinetic shoot ‘em up action of The Town it stands tall as his best and most entertaining film yet. Brilliant character actors swirl through the constantly surprising true story alongside wonderful period details, humor, humanity and the most suspenseful thirty minutes of the year.
Tony Mendez (Affleck) is a CIA exfiltration expert who’s called upon when the US government needs people removed from uncertain situations overseas. When word reaches them that the six Americans are hiding out in the residence of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, Mendez is one of the first men called in to examine the options for a rescue.
He tells them there are none.
A short time later though he’s struck with inspiration while watching one of the Planet of the Apes films on TV. That inspiration takes him to Hollywood special effects artist and friend of the CIA, John Chambers (John Goodman), and together they bring in producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). The plan is the polar opposite of rational simplicity and involves starting pre-production on a fake science fiction film, sending Mendez into Iran to scout locations and then flying out with the six Americans pretending to be part of his Canadian film crew.
This really happened.
Affleck’s film is an incredible time capsule capturing the drama, fears and sheer insanity of the situation with a loving eye for detail and personality. To that end he’s stocked the movie with almost as many fantastically memorable actors as there were hostages. Goodman and Arkin are joined by Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan and more. All of them bring a vitality to even the smallest parts with the first three also delivering many of the film’s biggest laughs.
Laughs you say? In a real-life hostage drama? It’s true. Chris Terrio‘s script, with directorial assists from Affleck, is peppered with sharp, funny conversations and observations about the absurdity of what’s being attempted. A line comparing film directors to rhesus monkeys seems especially self-injected by Affleck. They’re laugh-out-loud moments, but they never distract from the seriousness of the situation.
And they most certainly don’t get in the way of the film’s third act which delivers more edge-of-your-seat scenarios than any other five movies this year. They almost reach the point of overkill, but Affleck’s direction, William Goldenberg‘s editing and Alexandre Desplat‘s score keep you glued for that full half hour as things play out onscreen with unparalleled suspense and grace.
As a film, Argo is deliriously good adult entertainment, but as a true story it’s absolutely incredible. From the opening that uses animated storyboards to explain the history of Iran up through the hostage crisis to the end credits that show photos of the real players and events side by side with their cinematic counterparts, this is a movie that cares about telling an amazing story while respecting the events and people who lived them. The fact that it accomplishes all of this without casting a political slant in either direction is equally impressive and praise-worthy.
Those looking for a theme beyond the historical moment have two intertwined ones to choose from. The film celebrates the power of imagination and ingenuity when faced with daunting odds as Mendez attempts what truly is the best of all possible bad ideas. It also offers a sliver of redemption for both Mendez and America itself. For Mendez it’s an act of penance towards his wife and son for time spent elsewhere, and for the United States it’s showing the world that our great power isn’t always demonstrated with a military fist.
Argo is crackerjack entertainment deserving of both awards and box office as it offers up two hours of laughs, suspense and history in an extremely enjoyable package. Affleck has proven himself three times now as a serious talent behind the camera. It’s about time people stop feigning surprise when he delivers.
The Upside: Terrifically exciting and suspenseful third act; surprisingly funny; wonderfully acted; manages to stay apolitical
The Downside: May be playing a bit fast and loose with the facts; so much facial hair
On the Side: Argo is co-produced by George Clooney who was set to direct before other commitments encouraged him to hand the reins over to Affleck