Ben Affleck directs and stars in Argo, a smart, sharp blend of spy thriller and just thismuch comedy.
It’s 1979 and protesters take over the American embassy in Tehran, Iran. At this moment, just post Islamic revolution, Iranian anger at the U.S. is high, both for historical wrongs and for giving safe haven to the recently deposed Shah. As protesters threaten to overrun the embassy, most of the officials are rushing to burn or shred sensitive documents. But over in a small side building, six embassy employees in the visa office are cut off and trying to figure out what to do. Worried for themselves and for the Iranians who would be caught trying to flee the country, they hustle everybody out a side door and onto the street. They make their way to the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they find a safe haven but no path to leave the country.
While most of the U.S. government — and the country and the world — is focused on the embassy hostages, the CIA and some members of the state department are working to figure out how to get those six Americans out of the country. If they are discovered, CIA officials like Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) worry that they will be executed on the spot and that the Canadians might be imperiled as well.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck). He is an expert at getting people out of tricky situations — though he can’t seem to get himself out of whatever situation has left him separated from his wife. He strongly advises against plans to get the six to the border on bicycles (it’s hundreds of miles) or to have them pose as teachers (there are no Canadian teachers left in the country). One night he is on the phone with his young son watching a Planet of the Apes movie. The movie gives him an idea: Have the six pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations. He turns to John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist, for help in creating a believable movie cover story. To do that, you need to start the process of actually making a movie, Chambers advises. That means finding a producer — Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) — and a script with a story that provides a believable excuse for wanting to shoot in Iran. They settle on Argo, a science fiction film with a Middle-Eastern-ish setting, and, to really sell the cover story, they get posters printed up, take out ads in trade publications and even get press coverage for a script reading. Then Tony heads to Iran to meet and prepare his “crew.”
I binge-watched my way through Season 1 of Homeland and am now eagerly devouring each new episode of Season 2. The Showtime series is so sharp, so well-constructed that it has the feel of a top-notch spy movie. Argo manages to set the scene and put us in a textured, layered world as well as that series does — no small feat for a movie that is only two hours. With the help of archival news footage (a young Diane Sawyer! a young Ted Koppel!), Argo very quickly is able to paint the picture of this world. (Of course, sadly, angry protestors’ putting American embassy workers in peril is not such a difficult scenario to imagine.) Without a lot of unnecessary exposition, the movie is also able to give us just enough backstory on Mendez and even on some of the six embassy workers to make them real people, not just chess pieces.
Argo also does a good job balancing the mood — moments of dark comedy (lots of guys walking down government hallways cracking wise about the sorry state of affairs) help serve as palate-cleansers between stretches that nicely build tension.
Can I start the Oscar handicapping now? I suggest nominations for Affleck — both for directing and acting — as well as Goodman and Cranston, whose role is small but perfectly calibrated. And for the movie itself — it’s that rare example of quality storytelling that is genuinely entertaining and full of standout performances. A
Rated R for language and some violent images. Directed by Ben Affleck with a screenplay by Chris Terrio (from an article by Joshuah Bearman), Argo is two hours long and distributed by Warner Bros.