Ben Affleck is a force to be reckoned with. Never in my twenty-eight years of life – not after Armaggeddon and certainly not after Gigli – did I think I’d ever write those ten words. But, with Argo, Affleck shows such a mastery of storytelling that I don’t even want to point out some of the minor flaws lest it detract from just how well-made this picture is. This is a movie that has serious chops come awards season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben Affleck – he of Reindeer Games, mind you – gets not only a Best Director nod, but a Best Picture nomination, as well.
Argo starts with a fascinating animated-sequence with a voiceover describing the political climate leading up to the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis. It sounds campy, but it was actually incredibly helpful in contextualizing the situation, especially for those Generation Xers who don’t believe in history before the nineties. In short, Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy back in 1979. The root of this riot was the United States granting asylum to Iran’s former leader, a man thoroughly despised by the Iranian proletariat. All in, the militants ended up taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. During this time, however, six embassy workers managed to escape the militants and find asylum with the Canadian ambassador and his wife.
Following the animated sequence, we’re in the thick of the embassy on the morning of the spontaneous uprising. Affleck stages these scenes brilliantly; we can feel the anger of the Iranian mob, the panic of the embassy staff, and the worry of those Iranians unlucky enough to be applying for Visas on that particular day. When one of the security officials takes off his body gear and tells his fellow guards he’s “going outside to reason with them (the mob),” you actually groan at the foolishness. I know several of the people I was with did. By the end of that morning, Iran held the aforementioned 52 while collecting shredded information that would reveal they were missing the other six. It was only a matter of time before their identities would be discovered – especially since all foreigners were, at that time, leaving Iran in the wake up of the revolution.
Back in the U.S., Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is called by his boss at the CIA (played by Bryan Cranston) to “consult” with the State Department on the escalated situation in Iran. Turns out, the State Department is advised by Canada that their own ambassador is holding the six workers. The CIA specializes in extractions such as these, but, apparently, the State Department is going to run this operation itself. It doesn’t take long for Mendez to blow holes in all of the State Department’s ideas (e.g. give the six bicycles and have them bike to the Turkey border a measely three hundred-miles away); unfortunately, Mendez is part of the problem instead of the solution as he admits he has no workable solution either. Cue Planet of the Apes.
Inspired by a showing of this movie he sees on television, Mendez gets the idea to contact Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, never better) about a plan to extract the six. It’s Chambers who is well-connected to the Hollywood crowd (Chambers, the man, won an Academy Award for his work on Planet of the Apes) and sees the potential for Mendez’s crazy idea. In short, Mendez will fly to Tehran posing as a Canadian film producer, liaise with the six workers, give them new identities (Canadian film crewmen), and fly back to the States under the watchful eye of Iran’s revolutionary guard. Mendez’s boss sums it up nicely: “the best bad idea we have.”
Without giving away too much, Alan Arkin plays Lester Siegel, the producer Chambers and Mendez contact in order to create the veil of legitimacy. Together, they form a production studio, Studio 6, and get busy finding a script that would require them to “shoot” at desert locations in the Middle East. The script they intend on fake producing – “if I’m producing a fake movie, it’s going to be a hit,” as Siegel says – is Argo, a Star Wars ripoff that Mendez, Siegel, and Chambers get busy plugging as a legitimate Hollywood production. Before long, they have an office, business cards, advertisements in Vanity Fair, and eager actors vying for roles. Once these pieces are in place, Mendez is off to Iran to stage one of the craziest escapes coming out of declassified documents the CIA has probably ever pulled off.
And, that’s the amazing part. Argo is based on an actual event which saw an unholy alliance between Hollywood, the CIA, and the Canadian government. Mull that over. These were the major players in fooling Iran and the crazed revolutionary guards. Ultimately, this is a heist movie which balances comedy, drama, and tension perfectly. The only flaws – and they are few – are nominal. Canada’s credit was minimized (if you research the actual event, Canada did a hell of a lot more in staging this thing), and Affleck certainly changed the narrative to fit more tension in the ending scenes (the Wired article on which much of the movie was based shows an anticlimactic departure from the Tehran airport). Even so, “based on a true story” means the director can take creative liberties such as these.
I left the theater at the Aspen Film Festival with two thoughts: 1. Advanced screenings at festivals are the best; and 2. Ben Affleck, I am now convinced, wrote the bulk of Good Will Hunting. Such is the man’s talent with the last three movies he has directed (and co-written in some cases).