Iran: Hollywood’s newest scene. Academy Award winners Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Academy Award nominee Bryan Cranston and John Goodman star in Argo.
Cast of Characters:
Tony Mendez – Ben Affleck
Jack O’Donnell – Bryan Cranston
Lester Siegel – Alan Arkin
John Chambers – John Goodman
Robert Anders – Tate Donovan
Cora Lijek – Clea DuVall
Mark Lijek – Christopher Denham
Joe Stafford – Scoot McNairy
Kathy Stafford – Kerry Bishe
Lee Schatz – Rory Cochrane
Ken Taylor – Victor Garber
Hamilton Jordan – Kyle Chandler
Director – Ben Affleck
Screenplay – Chris Terrio
Based on the book Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez & the article “Escape from Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” by Joshuah Bearman
Producer – Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck & George Clooney
Rated R for language and some violent images
On November 4, 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been stormed by Iranian activists in retaliation over President Carter granting the Shah asylum in the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution. Fifty of the embassy staff are taken hostage, but six have managed to avoid capture and seek refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Back home, the U.S. State Department begin debating options for exfiltrating them from Iran. CIA Specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is brought in to consult on the plan, but neither he nor those in the State Department are able to come up with anything effective. But after catching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV, the light bulb in Mendez’s head pops on and a course of action is in rescuing the American is set. Posing as a producer for a Star Wars-esque sci-fi/adventure Argo, Mendez will attempt to rescue the Americans by passing them off as part of the film crew.
It’s risky and absurd, and the escapees are reluctant to put any trust whatsoever in Mendez’s scheme, but it just might be the only hope they have in escaping.
If Affleck’s first two films were somehow not enough to convince moviegoers he’s the real deal as a filmmaker, Argo would be the film to sway their minds.
Unless you’re talking about nominations for Best Director.
Everyone knows about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, an attack that stunned the United States and would strongly affect relations between America and Iran to this very day. Over the course of the 444-day crisis, the country would stumble its way through failed negotiations and military operations, but one of the riskiest and unconventional rescue missions would turn out to be one of the most successful. Led by CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez, the covert mission, referred to back then as the “Canadian Caper”, involved an elaborate production backstory for the faux-film Argo and detailed identities for the six Americans to assume during the escape.
While Affleck does stage a thrilling recreation of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, the focus, as the title obviously suggests, is not on the entire situation, but Mendez’s operation. Over the course of the mission, Affleck and writer Chris Terrior bounce back and forth between three connecting stories: Mendez and the six Americans in Iran, the monitoring of said mission from CIA headquarters and levity breaks from the Hollywood duo – John Chambers and Lester Siegel – who are backing Mendez’s covert project. Even with the latter serving as comic relief amid the far-from-funny scenario Mendez and the CIA are dealing with, Affleck never once loses his grip on the film’s tone and deftly forms a strong cohesive bond between the three settings (though it might seem to some like Chambers and Siegel are in an entirely different movie, they do serve a valuable purpose to the central conflict).
Of course, a few liberties are taken to ratchet the tension up a few notches. Not that the crisis wasn’t tense enough to begin with (in fact, if not for one of the Canadian embassy officers spotting a mistake with the visa dates not matching the Iranian calendar, the plan could’ve backfired hard), but the plan in real-life wasn’t exactly executed in “nail biter at the last minute” fashion as the third-act leads you to believe.
Such liberties taken are certainly a Hollywood standard, but those applied here are by no means a detriment to the film. Affleck has us on the edge of our seats throughout Argo’s tautly paced, sharply edited 2-hour run time, and not through any sort of cheap tricks either. The suspense comes not from any explosive action sequences, but from the constant feeling of dread that hangs over these six Americans’ heads. Can they trust Mendez? Is his preposterous plan strong enough to work? If not, what happens if they’re caught? Those that know the true story know what’s at stake. One wrong move, one slip up during an interrogation and it’s game over. The tension Affleck generates out of those life and death questions is absolutely palpable.
Most impressive is Affleck’s attention to detail. Out of his three directorial efforts, Argo is by far the most ambitious and he goes to great lengths in creating an authentic look of the time period (location work in Istanbul, Turkey serves as the stand-in for 1980’s Tehran). The picture is intentionally grainy, mimicking the classic espionage thrillers of the ’70s. Archival footage of President Carter, Ayatollah Khomeini, and old news footage of Ted Koppel, Mike Wallace and Walter Kronkite are seamlessly woven into the story. Even little touches like opening the film with the old Warner Bros. logo add to the film’s authenticity.
Though Affleck has proven himself to be a better filmmaker than actor, his acting chops shouldn’t be overlooked, and his prior effort, The Town, proved he could also star in the lead role as well as direct without it coming off like a giant self-pat on the back. Here, hidden under a ’70s mop-top and beard, Affleck gives one of the finest performances of his career. 10-15 years ago, during his career “Dark Ages”, seeing him in this role might’ve elicited snickers and eye rolls. Who are we kidding, might’ve? No, it would’ve, but Affleck nails it, portraying Mendez with a restraint that perfectly sells his character’s intelligence and ability to be in control of a tricky situation.
Outside of Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman – all terrific – most of the key supporting roles are filled by low-key, albeit recognizable, names. Dependable character actors like Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and the six Americans played by Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Rory Cochrane all create fleshed-out, humanized portrayals that provide solid support opposite Affleck (with him and Cochrane together, Argo also serves as a mini Dazed and Confused reunion).
Tense, exhilarating and, at times, a lot funnier than you’d expect, Argo has director/star Ben Affleck impeccably recreating one of America’s most harrowing events of the 20th century with strongly developed characters and impressive attention to period detail. Gone Baby Gone was the strong debut. The Town proved the debut was no fluke. Argo would solidify Affleck as one of Hollywood’s strongest contemporary filmmakers, one whose career behind the camera, only three films in, is just getting started. It goes without saying that the future looks quite bright when just your third film is this excellent.