The story of Argo might be hard to swallow if it weren’t so wonderfully true. A lot of movies claim to be based on fact but few ever come off with the feeling that they are anything more than Hollywood hot air. Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (from Warner Bros.) is different. Based on fact, it tells a story that would collapse into phony cliché in other hands, but under the direction of Ben Affleck, the movie is a nearly perfect thriller about how, in 1979, during the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a group of Islamic terrorists were robbed of a handful of their potential victims.
The movie opens with the recreation of the takeover. It says something of the craftsmanship of the film that despite the fact that we know how it ended, this scene develops a scary tension. We see the revolutionaries breaking the chains of the gates and storming the embassy as inside the Embassy workers rush to shred and burn all of their important papers. Fifty-two Americans are taken hostage, but six people walk out the back door. Frantic to find shelter, they find that the only person who will give them shelter is the Canadian Ambassador who hides the group in his crawl space.
Back home, the CIA is frantic. Tossing out all manner of goofball ideas, they are at a loss on how to rescue their people until one of their specialists Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets the goofiest idea of them all. He will fly alone into Tehran, retrieve the hostages, and fly back out posing as a Canadian film crew who are there scouting locations for a bad science fiction movie called “Argo”. In the wake of the success of “Star Wars,” a rip-off seems perfectly logical, especially one that needs a desert location – hey if George Lucas can do it, why can’t they?
The operation seems doomed from the start, but stranger things have happened. Mendez hires an Oscar winning make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman) and a laconic producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help secure financing, make sure that the production is air tight and to make sure that the production makes the news – the Iranians need to be made to think that the movie is the real deal.
Meanwhile, Mendez flies into Tehran and lays out the plan to the trapped sextet who remind him that his crackpot scheme could mean their public execution. Arriving in town he is reminded of the gravity of the situation when he spots a dead man hanging from a construction rig. Time is of the essence, the movie repeatedly cuts back the Embassy where Iranian children and elderly carpet weavers are employed to stitch together shredded documents at the same time that the terrorists are becoming aware that six people who are on the Embassy ledgers are missing.
The final half hour of this movie is a masterwork of pure suspense. Most filmmakers are satisfied with chases and violence for their effect, but Affleck trusts our intelligence. He lets us in on a lot of information early on and establishes a well-plotted narrative so that we know what is happening all the way through. When we get to the final half hour, we know who the players are and what is at stake. We know the escape plot as the crew gets from one tense checkpoint to the next. There are small details established in these scenes – a ringing telephone; a stalled bus; a bad computer connection; a locked door; a Polaroid photograph – that build the suspense out of logic, not cliché. This film is so perfectly paced that you want to applaud it. We know the escape plot as the crew gets from one tense checkpoint to the next. There are small details established in these scenes – a ringing telephone; a stalled bus; a bad computer connection; a locked door; a Polaroid photograph – that build the suspense out of logic, not cliché. This film is so perfectly paced that you want to applaud it.
There are great supporting performances here, and that is key. Victor Garber is perfect as Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador. As is Bryan Cranston as Tony’s CIA contact who acts at a key moment when the mission looks like it will be recalled by the folks at the White House. Also good is John Goodman as the make-up man John Chambers. But the best praise goes to Alan Arkin in a wonderful peformance as the cynical, sleepy-eyed producer Lester Siegel who assures Mendez “If I’m making a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit.” Arkin, now 78, has always been a treasure, an actor who seems to occupy a movie with such ease that he almost seems to live there.
All of these elements come together in a movie that is wonderfully entertaining, suspenseful and at times very funny. Affleck, with this film and his previous directing efforts on “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone“ has repeatedly shown a sure hand as a director. He clearly loves the craft and he respects us as viewers. Not only that, but he puts himself in the starring role and resists the temptation to make it flashy. He could reasonably have given himself a heroic posture here, but he lets us know that Mendez is only a key player, that so many people at home and abroad have a hand in this mission.
“Argo” could have gone wrong is so many ways, but there are sly in-jokes here about the way Hollywood works that you almost feel like rewarding it just for that. There’s a beautiful scene late in the film when the fake film crew show the airport security some storyboards for the science fiction film – they, of course, think the movie is real. For a moment the young Iranians get so caught up in the magic of movies that they forget their jobs. That this scene takes place at a moment teeming with suspense says something of the filmmaking and of the pure power of the movies.