Directed By: Ben Affleck
Written By: Chris Terrio, Tony Mendez
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler
Sentimentality and purpose are major facets in the tale of Argo. Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort is full of nuance, inspiration, and more importantly a profound respect for the story it is telling. It covers the strange but true tale of how the CIA attempted to bring home six stranded Americans during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. That reverence is a big reason why Argo is such an achievement. Care and effort went into every aspect in order to place you into their chaotic world and provide a small understanding of the tribulations they faced on a daily basis. Having that desire combined with the talent involved lead to produce one of the best films of the year thus far. Argo is one of those rare films that literally has everything; well timed comedic moments, nail biting thrills, and some grave drama. With so much going on it could have easily become an overblown mess, but it smartly uses those tonal shifts to its advantage to formulate each to the point of highest impact.
In 1979 during the Iranian Revolution the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was overtaken and the majority of those inside were held hostage. As the embassy was overrun six people were able to escape and find asylum in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Knowing the situation was dangerous for all parties the CIA attempted to create a plan to get all six Americans home alive before they were discovered and most likely executed. They were having no luck with making a workable plan, but that changed when CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, developed a scheme that is so crazy it just might work. While watching a Science Fiction film with his son he comes up with the idea that could get them a way into the country. He will fly into Iran as a Canadian film crew looking to scout locations for a Science Fiction film. The six Americans will pose as members of his crew and fly out of Iran with him. It is certainly a bad option, but it’s the ‘best bad option’ they have so they go with it.
The film, like the real life story, knows the way to sell a lie is in the details. For this to work the lie needs to be believable so their fake movie can come off as the real deal. Mendez calls on Academy Award winning makeup artist John Chambers, who has worked with the C.I.A. previously, to help them make this outlandish idea into a reality. John Goodman plays Chambers and fits the role perfectly. Goodman has an immediate presence with his natural comedic talent, and has ability to maintain during the more serious moments. When Mendez travels to Hollywood the story and tone take a dramatic shift. Most of the film up to that point was overwrought due to the severity of the issue they were facing. Such a sharp change would typically be jarring causing everything to feel out of place. Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it will be immediately believable to the audience. For it to work it must make sense in the context of the film. It certainly does as the transition was natural causing it to land smoothly. Among the reasons it worked was a layered script that acted like a perfect facilitator as it handed out the right beats at the right time.
Keeping the creation of the Argo movie on the comedic side was a smart move to make, as it called out its own ridiculousness. It also paid dividends when that outlandishness was juxtaposed with the events in Iran. There was a chilling moment where the reading of Argo’s script was interplayed with a press conference in Iran. This provided us a reminder of the danger that was still present, and brought us back to the reason why we were there in the first place. To help this plan work Chambers introduces Mendez to Lester Siegel, a Hollywood producer who can help them create their fake move. Alan Arkin plays Siegel and his performance has ‘old Hollywood’ written all over it. He’s been in the business far too long and has become so desensitized this idea does not even faze him one bit. He treats it like an old script that he passed on years ago that is now coming back to haunt them. The moments between Goodman, Arkin, and Affleck were easily the funniest part of the film, and it also allowed for some great character beats.
On the other hand the American refugees were far more underdeveloped. We got a small understanding of who they were, but it took awhile to understand what they were about. Amid so much going on they became lost in the shuffle. To its credit it did establish the frustration and gravity of their situation. We also saw how their questioning and self doubt played into their mental psyche. From afar it is easy to accept the idea as posing as a film crew, but when your life is on the line it is understandable to be hesitant about joining on so quickly. The situation was so well crafted it was impossible not to get invested into their story, but more could have been done to better develop the characters. Surprisingly Ben Affleck’s character Mendez was also lacking, especially when it brought in his relationship with his son and estranged wife. It was a subplot that was both underdeveloped and unnecessary. Perhaps it would have been better left on the cutting room floor, as it doesn’t add anything, and when it attempts an emotional payoff for the plotthread it feels out of place an unearned.
Luckily there is so much else that works with the film those issues are lost in this cavalcade of first-rate filmmaking. Ben Affleck has really grown into quite a director that has a knack for building tension. He peppers in certain information that we deem as important and store for future reference. He then crafts a scene that has stakes that hinge solely on that information. Thankfully we are not given the information again to reinforce the importance. Instead he trusts that we can put the pieces together ourselves to understand what’s going on. We can quickly figure out how an Iranian guard’s sudden ability to speak English is such a startling revaluation, because of what it means to these characters. I appreciate a director who treats his audience like adults, and Affleck certainly does. Affleck has a gem on his hands with Argo, and this can easily go down as one of the best of the year. The script is tight and never wastes a moment. The cast is wrought with talent and nearly all bring their A game. Lastly the direction of Affleck cannot be oversold. He may be guilty of pandering, especially with his endings, but at the end of the day he makes highly accessible films that don’t underestimate their audience. It’s one of those rare films that can appease the hardcore cinefile or the casual movie fan. I can’t think of many other films that can claim that same victory.