THE STORY – On Nov. 4, 1979, militants storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 American hostages. Amid the chaos, six Americans manage to slip away and find refuge with the Canadian ambassador. Knowing that it’s just a matter of time before the refugees are found and likely executed, the U.S. government calls on extractor Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to rescue them. Mendez’s plan is to pose as a Hollywood producer scouting locations in Iran and train the refugees to act as his “film” crew.
THE CAST – Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber & Kyle Chandler
THE TEAM – Ben Affleck (Director) & Chris Terrio (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
”Argo” was a film about spinning narratives. In one breath, it retells an incredible, borderline farcical ruse that managed to save multiple lives. In another breath, it was vindication for its director and star, Ben Affleck, who had spent the previous decade buckling under his own celebrity status. These combined narratives managed to land the Oscar for Best Picture at the 2013 ceremony and elevate Affleck’s career to heights never previously seen.
Interestingly, one of these narratives has overtaken the other in the decade since. The reputation of “Argo” as a film has lessened, and the perception of it as a comeback vehicle for Affleck has taken center stage in the public conscience. It’s not an incorrect assessment, given his involvement in the film’s writing, acting, directing, and producing (it’s one of the stealthiest vanity projects you’ll find). Still, there’s more to “Argo” than Affleck, and that’s what we’re here to discuss.
“Argo” opens with an animated exposition dump that lays the groundwork. On November 4, 1979, Iranian Islamists stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, leading to the acquisition of 66 hostages. However, six of them manage to avoid capture by hiding out in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Flummoxed as to what to do with these hostages, the CIA appoints agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) to invent an operation that would get them out safely. Mendez’s solution is right out of a Hollywood film. That solution? Well, a Hollywood film. He fakes the announcement and sale of a sci-fi flick called “Argo” and proceeds to extricate the six hostages under the guise of them being involved with the production. Mendez pulls it off (spoiler alert for history) and is rewarded for an operation that wasn’t publicly known for several decades.
“Argo” is a political thriller on the surface. The opening attack on the U.S. Embassy is a suspenseful masterclass, as the jagged camerawork and sound design expertly recreate the hostages’ sense of fear. Affleck is tipping his cap to relevant influences like “The Parallax View” (1974) and “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), cribbing not only the opening titles but the muted period detail, and the result is some of his finest directing to date. However, the film doesn’t stay in political thriller mode for long because “Argo” is a heist film at its core. Once the shock of the opener wears off, Mendez ventures to Hollywood to put together his fake hit, and the film begins to resemble Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11” (2001) in both style and execution. The CIA agent puts together a roster of believable Hollywood players– chief among them makeup specialist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin)– in scenes that are entertaining, if not a little incongruous with what came before.
Those who haven’t watched “Argo” in a while may be shocked by how different the two parts of the film really are. Affleck’s recounting of the Tehran incident is unrelentingly bleak, with the hostages (Scoot McNairy & Clea DuVall) constantly facing the possibility of capture and/or death. The American side of things is an acerbic love letter to Hollywood, with enough quippy dialogue to tickle anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the industry.
One could argue that Affleck should have focused more on the international politics of the rescue (the Canadians, who played a massive role in the success of the operation, are barely mentioned) and the larger group of hostages who were actually captured, but the film’s appeal lies in how broadly it treats its historical material. We’re not talking about painstakingly researched and accurate recreations like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007) or Soderbergh’s “Che” (2008), but a high-profile genre film that wants to make audiences laugh as often as they grip their seats. On these grounds, it succeeds.
The dialogue in the Hollywood scenes can sometimes fall flat, as though screenwriter Chris Terrio had regurgitated every smug thing he’d ever heard Hollywood producers say at parties, but the performances by Goodman and Arkin help to smooth these cracks over, and some of the lines do genuinely kill (“If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit” is a classic). The aforementioned duo has gotten most of the love, but the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with sturdy turns from Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Rory Cochrane, and Bryan Cranston keeping the CIA side of things afloat. Cranston, in particular, is having fun here, turning in the kind of wry performance that Jack Warden would’ve given had the film been made in the time period.
In truth, the biggest casting issue the film has is Affleck. Ignoring the fact that Mendez is Mexican-American and Affleck is, well, not (nothing new for Hollywood), the actor’s serviceable performance feels like a missed opportunity when one considers the nuance another leading man could have brought to the table. Terrio reportedly wrote the script with George Clooney in mind, and one can only imagine what “Michael Clayton” could have done with the bearded cipher and unsung CIA hero. Affleck doesn’t derail the film by any means, but the lack of attention his acting got when it came to reviews and awards says a lot. The attempts to flesh out Mendez’s personal life with lackluster family scenes don’t help, either.
The film goes out on a high with a third act that never lets up. The tension that informed the opener returns, and Affleck, utilizing his skill for pacing and cross-cutting, manages to make the foregone conclusion of a successful mission feel revelatory. It’s a crowd-pleasing sendoff in the best possible way.
If there are three things Hollywood loves, it’s films about America saving the day, films about real-life events, and films about Hollywood. Affleck found a way to fold all three into one, and while that may read as cynical to some, it’s difficult to argue with the quality result it yielded. Is it the best film of 2012? No. But it spun a narrative that connected with cinephiles and general moviegoers, and it validated a talent we had known for almost two decades. It’s an old-school underdog story, and who doesn’t root for one of those? If the answer is you, then you can “Argo”-you-know-what yourself.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The balance of humor and tension is masterfully handled by Affleck. The ensemble cast are great across-the-board. A crowd-pleasing, well-executed finale.
THE BAD – The film’s commitment to broad appeal sometimes results in surface-level storytelling, and the central performance by Affleck is unremarkable.