Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Rory Cochrane, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 120 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The first ten minutes of Argo are so exciting and suspenseful it's almost impossible believe it all actually happened. But it did. Of course, how closely the events depicted on screen match what really unfolded will be subject to debate, as is always the case whenever a film is "based on a true story." As far as political, Oscar friendly topics like this go, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything that fits the mold as well as the one director Ben Affleck covers in his most assured outing behind the camera yet. That George Clooney co-produced this is of little surprise since Affleck feels like this year's Clooney, starting out as a star struggling to be taken seriously as an actor and eventually earning that respect by now only directing and starring in projects he believes in.
Fully deserving every bit of praise it's gotten, his film is bookended by two thrilling sequences, the latter so tense it's almost unbearable to watch, actually drawing applause in the theater when it concluded. And that's despite us knowing how this ends. At first glance it looks like a fine, if completely by the book, point A to point B type of biographical drama/thriller, but upon closer inspection it's clear there's a lot more going on beneath the surface. Intelligent and well-made, it seems like the type of film easier to respect and admire than outright love, but I was surprised just how much I loved it. And given the tricky ground it covers, that certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion.
The film tells the story of a mission that until 1997 was kept classified. When the U.S. Embassy in Iran was stormed by militants in November, 1979 for sheltering the deposed and recently ailing Shah, more than 50 embassy staffers were taken hostage. Six escaped, hiding in the home of the Canadian Ambassador as CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) are brought in to come up with a game plan for getting them out. Mendez makes a call to his old friend, Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who recruits legendary, but washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to conceive a fake science fiction fantasy movie called Argo, that will shoot in Iran.
The plan is for Mendez to pose as the fake film's producer, and with phony passports and identities, sneak the six escapees back to the U.S. as members of his production crew. They go so far as to actually write a script, take out real ads in Variety and pretend to scout out locations to pull off a ruse that just might be crazy enough to work, especially given the recent success of a little movie called Star Wars. But due to the potential embarrassment if it fails, the plan could be too crazy and dangerous for the government to get behind, putting Mendez's entire mission at risk. There's also the enormous obstacle of successfully prepping the six escapees and managing to safely get them past airport security. Already limited in options, if Mendez attempts to go through with this, there's a good possibility they all could die. If he doesn't try, they definitely will.
That this never manages to feel like a historical recitation while being so fully entrenched in history during its two-hour running time is quite an accomplishment. Even the actual newsreel footage is incorporated in an exciting way that feels organic enough to the story that it's sometimes indistinguishable from the filmed scenes. There's something to be said for telling a fact based, true life story in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner that's free of emotional fat or needless editorializing.You can thank Affleck for this as the pacing, editing, production design, cinematography, and musical choice are all so spot-on, yet lack the showboating flare that can unnecessarily draw attention to them. Because of that, it's possible more casual moviegoers could be shaking their heads wondering what all the fuss and awards attention is about. This isn't to imply they don't "get it" or come off as a stuffy film snob since that reaction most closely mirrors my own immediately after it ended.
Much reflection isn't necessary to recognize the attributes in every aspect of this project from top to bottom, brimming to the rim with scenes that don't so easily leave your mind. Even more unusual is a director executing so invisibly well and with such an objective eye that it doesn't even seem like anything's being done. Then, before you know it, it's over. That it is very much being done, and milked for such great suspense, at the service of what's essentially a biographical procedural, is even more impressive. It's one of those technically gifted films (a lot like the Clooney-starring Michael Clayton) that comes out looking clean as a whistle after you slide it down the conveyor belt and inspect for flaws.
If there's one thing that does attract attention, it's a production and costume design that's so 1970's it's almost impossible not to stare in disbelief or even maybe laugh out loud. That's not at all a flaw, but rather an exposure to our ignorance of just how silly the fashion and styles were back then. I don't doubt the period detail is completely spot-on and a separate documentary could probably be made about Affleck's shaggy helmet of hair which seems to enter each scene five minutes before he does. Yet this only adds to the authenticity of the proceedings, as it genuinely feels like we're being transported to another time in a way that few historical dramas have successfully pulled off as well.
This is a really loaded cast, but again, in such a subtle way that you might not realize just how many great roles are afforded to some of the best, most under-valued character actors currently working in TV and film. That Affleck is a fan of them and thought enough to give each a showcase in the right capacity speaks to his intuition and integrity as a craftsman. Perhaps no choice speaks to that more than the casting of Bryan Cranston in a semi-huge role as Mendez's superior, O' Donnell, who appears at first only to dispense and receive information until events change course and his character has to re-adjust on the spot. What he does and how he does it is surprising, and will be even to those with knowledge of how these events unfolded.
There's also Victor Garber as Canadian Ambassador Taylor, Kyle Chandler as Carter's Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, and also a slew of brief, but entirely functional appearances from Chris Messina, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton, Clea DuVall and Zeljko Ivanek sprinkled throughout. As one of the six escapees, the long underrated Tate Donovan gets a chance to step up and shine as the defacto leader of the group. If an Oscar category was ever instituted for best ensemble, Argo would have it in the bag as its difficult recalling a cast as meticulously assembled and well utilized as this.
Despite their top billing, it's ironically Alan Arkin and the great John Goodman who leave the tiniest impressions, with the former doing another variation on his "grumpy old man" routine while the latter seems to be the only key supporting player slightly marginalized by Chris Terrio's script. There's also a clever joke involving the fake movie's title that's funny the first time, but less so after five or six, as if they just wanted to make sure we got it. But that's a small nitpick. And for all praise Affleck's received behind the lens, his work in front of it this time out hasn't gotten nearly the attention it's deserved as it could be the most quietly effective performance he's ever given, playing a man torn between following orders and doing what he knows is right. In either case, Mendez is playing chicken with everyone's lives.
I fear Arkin will be nominated for this when a far more deserving performance is given from a mustachioed Scoot McNairy as cynical escapee Joe Stafford, who isn't the slightest bit interested in cooperating with Mendez's risky plan and is more than willing to stand his ground. The character could have easily come across as just a stubborn jerk, or worse, a plot contrivance, but McNairy plays him as being aggravated and petrified for he and his wife Kathy's (Kerry Bishe) safety. He brings up legitimate holes in the plan and an argument can even be made that every objection he has is completely correct. Unfortunately, the only other alternative is staying there and waiting for certain death. He has a scene in the last act that simply defies description, so ratcheted with tension it causes you to hold your breath until it's over. It's clearly the moment when political implications of the entire situation collide head-on with the universal effect movies can have as a means of communication between cultures.
In a cast like this it's difficult to stand out, but McNairy does, much like the film, by not standing out and just doing his job expertly. So much so that if I I have a complaint it's that the time spent with Mendez cutting through bureaucractic red tape may have been better spent with the escapees, but considering these office scenes often play like a cross between All The President's Men and Zodiac, that's a very small quibble. Criticisms by some that Canada's role in the mission is downplayed seem silly when at one point it's made perfectly clear through actual footage the extent of their involvement was and how they were eventually credited. Given that this entire situation was essentially a huge cover-up anyway, it keeps in the spirit of true events that the movie wouldn't put heavy focus on Canada's cooperation. Not to mention it's just par the course for adjustments to be made so that true events can be streamlined into a cohesive two-hour narrative.
It's almost too obvious to compare Affleck's creative transformation to Clooney's, so it might be more accurate to point out that he's simply completed his transformation into Ben Affleck, fulfilling (if not exceeding) his full potential as a director and actor. After this, the sky really seems to be the limit in terms of what he can do, having gone even a step further than Clooney in not only taking inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 70's, but actually setting one in that time period based on actual events. To call this his Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck. wouldn't be far off, except it's better realized, taking what could have come off as a dry history lecture in lesser hands and molding and shaping it into suspenseful, first-class entertainment. It's become a running joke that the last two or three months of the year are reserved for smart, sophisticated dramas aimed at adults. If only that were a joke. After watching something like this I wonder how some critics aren't tempted to just take the first ten months of moviegoing off and show up now. Luckily though, Argo was more than worth the wait.