Among the films I saw at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, it was the most exciting and engrossing. And I can’t think of anything I’ve seen so far this year that offered the satisfactions that “Argo” does. Affleck, who stars, is even more stellar as a director, making a film that turns a forgotten moment of recent history into a thrilling tale of courage and heroism.
The historic event “Argo” deals with is the aftermath of the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, by Iranian students and militants during the Iranian revolution. They were incensed that the U.S., which had enabled the despotic Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, because of our oil interests (any of this sounding familiar?), had given the Shah asylum when he fled the country in search of cancer treatment. So the protesters took over the American embassy, taking the employees hostage and holding them for more than a year, ultimately costing Jimmy Carter reelection as president. But while they grabbed most of the employees, six managed to escape, hiding out at the homes of Canadian diplomats.
So Chris Terrio’s script picks up with the CIA’s efforts to rescue those six before they are captured as well. The agency turns to Tony Mendez (Affleck, in a shaggy wig and beard), a self-described exfiltrator whose specialty is spiriting people out of hostile territory.
How to do it? Mendez finally hits on an idea: He will create false papers and pass the Americans off as members of a Canadian film company, in Iran to scout locations for a fictional feature film. He brings aboard a movie makeup expert, John Chambers (John Goodman), and an aging producer who hasn’t had a hit in a while, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
Together, they come up with a script, “Argo,” a space adventure a la “Star Wars” (this is, after all, 1979, after Hollywood decided that the success of “Star Wars” demanded the creation of a ton of lookalike product for the mass audience). It’s been kicking around for a while, so it’s not out of the question that someone would actually make it.
Once all the mock background work has been done on the film – including a staged table read of the script for the press – Mendez heads for Iran, to rendezvous with the hidden Americans. His task then becomes both indoctrinating them in their new identities, in case they are questioned as they leave the country, and taking them around on a fake location scouting trip.
There’s no point in going into the details of methods Mendez uses to establish this cover story or the ways it could unravel before they escape the country, Suffice to say that things get exceptionally tense as they near the finish line, and the suspense continues right up to the film’s conclusion.
Affleck leads a cast that submerges its own identities into those of real-life characters without losing the sense of immediacy or urgency of the story. The imagery he uses – of angry Iranian mobs in the street – seems familiar today, but, when this was happening, it was something Americans had rarely seen on the evening news.
And, though this is a story set against the backdrop of history, Affleck makes it personal. These are people who are playing a dangerous game, one that keeps them on their toes every moment they’re in the public eye in Iran. Affleck’s Mendez also is coping with the copious bureaucracy back in the U.S., which threatens to undo all his elaborate work at a crucial point.
This is a story about nerve and guts, told with skill and artistry. Affleck is the star, but his is not a flashy performance. He’s like a coach, getting a team ready for the big game by letting them gain confidence in themselves. The odds are against them, but you’d never know it from the way he treats these nervous diplomats.
Affleck is good and Bryan Cranston is his equal, as Mendez’s boss back in Washington. But Goodman and Arkin nearly steal the film as the cynical Hollywood types who are happy to have a moment of glory, even if the movie isn’t real.
“Argo” is one of the year’s most entertaining and satisfying films, a thoughtful thriller that keeps you on edge without resorting to cheap tricks. Affleck understands that the truth is often the best story when it’s left unvarnished.Print This Post