Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe
Rated: R for language and some violent images
Hollywood loves making movies about movies, especially ones that mock the film industry. Make one that’s a movie about a fake movie and a period piece to boot, and you have a winner. That winner is “Argo,” which tells the story of how the CIA teamed up with Hollywood and the Canadian government to rescue six Americans who managed to avoid being captured as part of the Iranian hostage crisis.
The six escapees, referred to by the CIA as “the houseguests,” took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, who hid them for 79 days. Getting them out of the country seemed essentially impossible, and the CIA eventually went with the least-bad rescue strategy: build a backstory, send in exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) with cover materials, and disguise the houseguests as a film production company on a location scouting expedition. They then leave the country using Canadian passports and forged papers. The backstory involves finding an actual script, optioning it, setting up a production company, and generating publicity for the film: “Argo,” a “Star Wars” ripoff.
The Hollywood portion of the story has a lot of humor in it, ranging from satirical commentary on the movie industry to borderline theater-of-the-absurd material as everything with the operation begins to go wrong. In contrast, the events in Tehran are nail-bitingly tense — the Canadian ambassador is risking the lives of everyone in his home by shielding the houseguests from the roving bands of Revolutionary Guards. When the two storylines meet, absurdity blends with tension to magnify both.
Affleck is a far better director than actor, and he directs himself with a humble self-awareness that a lot of actor/directors lack. Affleck’s flatness and awkwardness on screen are actually assets here; when Mendez isn’t at work (where he’s cool and slick, something Affleck excels at), he’s uncertain and out of his element. Affleck draws good performances out of the rest of the cast, too — there are far too many of them to spend much time developing characters, but they still feel like people.
1979 is over thirty years ago now, and the film takes us back there from the first frames — it begins with an old version of the Warner Bros. logo. The clothes, hairstyles, glasses, and set dressings all look accurate. Even the color palette feels like it’s from the seventies. This is a period piece as carefully-crafted as any Merchant-Ivory Austen adaptation.
Some folks might feel that knowing what actually happened will make the film less suspenseful, but for most that shouldn’t be an issue. “Argo” is so well-paced that it gets its suspenseful nature under your skin. Unless you’re someone who finds Bond movies boring because obviously the main character isn’t going to die, you’ll probably find this an exciting, gripping movie regardless of whether or not you know how it ends.
“Argo” is a gripping historical thriller, one with a sense of both humor and of the enormous danger these people are in. This is a solidly good film, and a good transition from the frenetic action and comedy of the summer into the Oscar season and more serious movies of winter.