Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay by Chris Terrio; based on the articles The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez and The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman. Produced by Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Photographed by Rodrigo Prieto. Edited by William Goldenberg. Production designed by Sharon Seymour. Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scott McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Keith Szarabajka, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind.
In 1979, Iran was in turmoil and American lives were endangered. When militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostages, six diplomats escaped but found themselves in hostile territory, taken in by the Canadian ambassador and hiding in his house as armed men roamed the streets searching for them. Ben Affleck’s Argo tells the story of these men and the improbable tale of their rescue. It’s like the Apollo 13 of spy movies, telling a story with only one possible outcome with such craft and skill that we are helplessly spellbound.
For director Ben Affleck, it’s the third in a string of successes behind the camera (including Gone Baby Gone and The Town), and further proof that when it comes to talented filmmakers, he’s the real deal. He also uses Argo as an illustration of how he’s grown as an actor, giving himself the role of Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who masterminds a cockamamie plan to save the Iranian diplomats: fabricate a movie production, go to Iran under pretense of a location scout, and then slip out with the six innocents in tow. Whether this plan works or not I shan’t reveal. What I will say is that it forms the backbone of one of the most suspenseful and well-made Hollywood thrillers in years.
Mendez’s idea is so crazy that it might work, but given a skeptical agency (which is depicted in the film—believably—as a bureaucratic nightmare), he has to fly to Hollywood and whip up an authentic-looking cover story in mere days. For this he falls into the orbit of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and now has to help shape and sell a phony space opera so that it will convince the Iranian government. They’re aided by the cantankerous producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who buys a screenplay for a Star Wars knockoff called Argo during a meeting with a writer that basically turns into a hostage negotiation.
The project being a space fantasy is key for two reasons. One, it provides a plausible reason why a film company would leave Los Angeles to find an “exotic locale.” Two, it’s a genre that is so innocent and well-meaning that it provides a perfect cover for espionage. During one excruciatingly suspenseful moment, the heat on an important interrogation is decreased considerably when the scripts and storyboards come out, a few Iranians becoming like wide-eyed children as they’re pitched an amazing story.
Argo is itself an amazing story, based on recently declassified true events, most likely goosed for maximum suspense. The film’s first half, which chronicles Mendez’s bewildered attempts to get his fleapit movie production ready for prime time are entertaining and funny, possessing the air of a breezy caper, without ever betraying the human stakes that are half a world away. The film’s second half, as Mendez arrives in Iran and secretly coaches the diplomats on their cover stories as if their lives depend on it (and they do), is exhilarating filmmaking, as Affleck cuts between the frightened Americans, the Goodman-Arkin double act at home, and Iranian officials who are reconstructing shredded documents that might put a finger on who the missing diplomats are, and where. Even those who are aware of the Americans’ whereabouts may sell them out. Meanwhile, Affleck’s CIA boss (Bryan Cranston) tries to keep the state department heads, who may pull the plug on the operation and toss the diplomats aside, at bay.
Through all of this, Affleck ratchets up the tension and erects a monument—through this film—to the heroism of people bearing unbearable pressure. The film doesn’t overextend this effort, it just lets the actions of these people speak for themselves. The six diplomats aren’t shuffled back and forth as props but are instead given specific characters to play, which is important, since these people must suppress their true natures or risk exposure. While there are most certainly elements of the story that have been molded for drama, none of the narrative strands feel false.
With this film, Ben Affleck solidifies his stature as a director to watch. Once again he shows an uncanny sense of time and place, capturing the late 70’s/early 80’s in clothing, hairstyles and attitudes, and then treating the Iran location (filmed in Istanbul) not as travelogue but with the grit and toughness of a 70’s drama that takes its heroes (and villains) seriously as people, without stereotypes or insults. The result is a remarkably even-handed political drama, a gripping adventure story, a marvelous entertainment, and above all a smart meditation on how movies can provide the thing we need the most: a great escape.