Tense, gripping, and exciting, Affleck’s “Argo” transports us back to international crisis of 1979

Review by C.J. Bunce

In Argo, the stakes could not be greater.  It is 1979 and the American embassy in Iran is stormed by a vast street mob seeking to hold hostage 52 people in exchange for the return of the Shah of Iran, granted asylum in the United States and dying from cancer.  For 444 days we waited and hoped for their release, and each day Walter Cronkite ended his news broadcast with the number of days they’d been held.  It was the ultimate nightmare and the sporadic glimpses of the hostages being led away with white blindfolds made us all imagine what kind of terror they must each be going through, as Christmas 1979 and  Christmas 1980 came and went, as back home we all went ahead with our lives every day.  But Argo is not about the 52 hostages.

At the time the embassy was attacked, six Americans working in the embassy managed to escape and hide out in the home of the Canadian ambassador and his wife.  Argo is the story of a completely illogical, unlikely, nearly impossible–even crazy–plan involving a mock sci-fi movie concocted to rescue them, and two friends back in the States who came together in 1980 to create a plan and convince President Carter to give the go-ahead to proceed with the mission.

Believe the advance buzz.  Believe the early Oscar chatter.  Could Ben Affleck really have created the most compelling historical drama in the new millennium?  The Hurt Locker, Crash, Syriana, were all critically acclaimed dramas–yet none of these create the nail-biting atmosphere of reality in the most desperate of circumstances–the fear of a mob closing in on you, the uncertainty of impending death, the reality of having no reason to hope for rescue, and the guts it takes to step out into an ocean of your enemies to attempt to escape.  Not since George Clooney’s Munich have we seen such an incredible story based on real events put to film so brilliantly.  Argo will have no problem standing up against all of these films.  It is relevant, even timely.  And even if you know the story you will be treated to an entertaining drama that might as well be a suspense-thriller, on par with All the Presidents’ Men.  But despite some of the marketing efforts, this is not a comedy or even a dark comedy–if there is laughter in the film it is nervous laughter.

Affleck took steps to make sure the viewers don’t see the Iranians as merely a black hat villain, focusing attention on Oskar Schindler-type actions taken by the Iranian housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, and revealing individual hard-working and loyal officers carrying out their investigation and defending the airport.  Still, realities of war and the impact of actions on Iranian citizens are not hidden from view, including a child work camp and back-alley street murder.

The opening scene is harrowing and may leave you breathless–where the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan showed the vast enormity of war, director Ben Affleck’s similarly stunning introduction to Argo bottles up all that intensity and drops into your lap the personal, suffocating despair of standing behind a door with thousands of angry, out-of-control men and women chanting in another language, toting guns, about to break their way through to you, and quite possibly rip you to shreds.  Then the escape plan once executed becomes a freight train of angst, of blood-pumping anxiety that may have you writhe and wiggle in your seat, willing these characters to only be able to make it to the next scene.

The pacing of Argo could not be better–it’s an even-tempered story that unfolds methodically.  Unlike every other film that has been made with a key hero at the fore, Affleck, directing himself in the lead role of CIA operative Tony Mendez, resists the temptation and gives the audience what we’ve always wanted–a cool and calm, experienced planner who believes in his own strengths, needing no “rah rah” speeches or ceremony, no gung-ho, go get ’em attitude.  It is an amazing feat that Affleck, who was only 7 years old when the events in the film transpired, accurately re-created the years 1979 and 1980 via the actors, the script, the cars, the clothes and scene-for-scene set construction (which is shown compared to contemporary photographs at the end of the film, revealing just how well Affleck’s crew did their jobs).

The film begins with a well executed, mini-history lesson for those viewers under 40 or even 45 that cannot remember the events as they happened.  And it’s bookended by the view of Mendez’s kid’s room, with artifacts that those of Affleck’s generation will remember well and would have had on their own shelves, from Kenner Star Wars figures to Mego Star Trek dolls, allowing the viewer some context, and a much-needed sigh of relief to pull you back into 2012.

Argo is the story of unsung heroes.  Of a B-movie Hollywood filmmaker who took a risk, and in doing so proved that one person can act and change events on the other side of the world.  Hollywood likes to see Hollywood in movies.  If John Goodman ever had one role to give him a nod from the Academy all take note that this is his big one.  His performance as makeup artist John Chambers is gritty and thoughtful.  As much as I really would have liked to see more of the original Argo production creation or publicity reading–including a cameo by the legendary and beautiful 1970s icon Adrienne Barbeau–I think Affleck keeping that in reserve was the right choice.  But the inclusion of original Argo actors, costumed scene reading, and any other footage that still exists, if any, will be a MUST for the DVD release.

Other actors at the top of their game in this film include Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as Mendez’s CIA boss, Alan Arkin as a Hollywood exec that assists Chambers, Victor Garber (Titanic, Milk) as the Canadian ambassador, Tate Donovan (Memphis Belle, Magnum, PI, SpaceCamp) and Clea DuVall (Heroes, Zodiac, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as two of the Americans in hiding, Maz Siam (Chuck) as a guard, Farshad Farahat (NCIS: Los Angeles) as an Iranian airport soldier, Richard Kind (Spin City, Burn Notice, Leverage) as a studio exec, Kyle Chandler (Early Edition, Super 8) as a state department contact, and Sheila Vand (Life) as the Canadians’ housekeeper.  The casting was very well matched for the roles of the nationals.  Compare this scene from the film:

… to the actual Americans, here with President Carter in a White House photo:

With Argo Affleck should finally secure the much deserved credibility to once and for all leave behind the Kevin Smith roles and use his own resources and influence to move forward with more movies of scope and depth and purpose, while entertaining us with compelling and unusual storytelling.  Here’s a suggestion:  A sequel focusing on the rest of the story–the 444 days of detainment of the 52 hostages–maybe call it 444.

Editor’s Note:  More background on the real mission to rescue the six U.S. nationals from Tehran can be found in our prior post here.

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