A film review by Craig J. Koban October ,16, 2012
2012, R, 120 mins.
2012, R, 120 mins.
Tony: Ben Afffleck /
Jack: Bryan Cranston /
John: John Goodman /
Ken: Victor Garber /
Lester: Alan Arkin /
Bob: Tate Donovan
represents yet another unqualified triumph for director Ben Affleck, who
fuses together vivid historical recreation, finely articulated
performances, political espionage, movie industry satire, and
nerve-jangling Hitchcockian suspense into one audience-pleasing package.
I knew back in 2007 when Affleck made his directorial debut with
his hard-boiled GONE BABY GONE
(which made my list of the Ten Best Films of that
year) that he had the
makings of a fine and soulful filmmaker, which he further established with
his follow-up, the meticulously rendered THE
TOWN (which proved that his first film was no rookie fluke).
Now comes ARGO, which all but solidifies the 40-year-old
California-born, Massachusetts-raised Affleck as one of the pre-eminent
actors-turned-directors working today.
is reality-based, which is important because its story is borderline impossible
to believe as something that actually happened.
Yet, the late-70’s centric story did in fact happen and it’s a
testament to Affleck’s skills and the power of the screenplay – by
first-timer Chris Terrio – in how the film is grounded in a realistic sheen.
The script’s stranger than fiction premise uses Joshuah
Bearman’s 2007 Wired article (wonderfully titled) “Escape from Tehran:
How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” as
its primary source of inspiration while judiciously sprinkling in
fictitious elements for the sake of dramatic license.
It’s largely centered on the infamous 1979 takeover of the
American Embassy in Iran by militant students. ARGO
establishes that event, but it’s more concerned with a largely unknown
side-story (at least until it was declassified by the Clinton
administration) of how six Americans escaped the embassy while it was being
overrun and how they managed to flee Iran for the U.S. without being
detected. It involved one
intrepid – if not a bit crazy – CIA agent, some counterfeit passports, an
equally counterfeit movie production, and some Canadian cooperation.
film opens with a bravura and uncanny recreation of the embassy takeover
of November 4, 1979 (after a brief prologue that uses historical and news
archival footage to effortlessly give us a primer as to what led to the
event) and just as radical students climb over the gates and begin to storm
the embassy doors, employees and diplomats begin to shred documents and
all other top secret material. Six
of the workers – Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane),
Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea Du Vall), and Joe and
Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe) decide that their only
recourse is to attempt an escape of the building and try their luck outside
(which seems like a suicidal prospect, considering what is occurring on
the streets). They do manage to escape and make their way to the residence
of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (played by the great Canuck actor
Victor Garber), where he harbored them in secret – at great personal
risk to both himself and his family – for the next three months.
just couldn’t take the Americans in his car and drive them to the
airport. Tehran was an
anti-American militarized zone through and through with armed security and
deeply nitpicky passport check points that would easily identify the six
Americans rather easily. The
American intelligence community was aware of the danger of trying to "exfiltrate" the men and women out of Iran as well, so CIA director Jack
O’Donnell (BREAKING BAD’s Bryan Crantson, in his best film role to
date) enlists one of their operatives, Tony Mendez (Affleck, subdued, low
key, and stalwart) to hatch a plan to get them out quietly and without
After many wickedly silly ideas are discussed (one involving having the six Americans ride bicycles to the border, a 300 mile trek), Mendez hatches his own highly odd – but bold and courageous – plan that would make Ethan Hunt blush: He will establish a phony film production company with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (the real one that did PLANET OF THE APES, played well by John Goodman) and big-wig producer Lester Siegel (a made-up character, played in juicy scenery-chewing mode by Alan Arkin) to produce a fake Hollywood sci-fi film called ARGO that will be shot in Iran. He will give the six Americans Canadian passports and have them all pose as Canadian members of the film crew, which will allow them all to pass the tight airport security and – presto! – lead to them boarding a Swiss flight and proceed home.
the very beginning of the film (which uses the original Warner Brothers
logo from the 70’s…nice) and then transports us to the beginnings of
the hostage crisis that would last 444 days, Affleck’s attention to
historical realism here is of the highest order. Making a 70’s themed picture can backfire if too much
garish attention is paid to potentially laughable dress and props, but
Affleck, his art department and production team keenly understand that
the best choice is to go understated and subtle, allowing our easy engagement into this time period to the point where we are not distracted
by it. He does this not just
with the look and design of the film, but also by using archival footage
of President Carter, the Shah, the Ayatollah, and news coverage from Ted
Koppel, Mike Wallace, and Walter Cronkite to add layers of period
cinematographer, Rodrigo Preito (BROKEBACK
MOUNTAIN) uses Istanbul as a substitute for Tehran without missing
a beat; the result is always authentic.
also balances all of ARGO’s divergent themes with a real razor sharp
script traverses from being a caper flick to a frequently hysterical
Hollywood satire to a tense espionage spy film and finally to a chronicle
of the real U.S./Iran tensions that still exist to this day. Before the film shows the difficulty – and madness – of
Mendez attempting to secure the freedom of the six Americans with one foot
in the pressure cooker and the other in the frying pan, it's knee-deep in sly sequences involving Mendez, Chambers, and Siegel trying
to sell a fake film (and a bad one at that) to not only their peers back
home, but to the Iranian government as well.
Few films that have been about such life-and-death real-life
circumstances have been as simultaneously amusing and tense as ARGO.
performances help in spades as well.
Affleck is shrewd enough not to hog the spotlight, and he evokes in
his character the right nonchalant blend of courage, vulnerability, and
nail-biting doubt and uncertainty. Cranston
is particularity strong in his supporting role as the CIA head honcho that
has a method of making his character feel both absurdly comical and
sternly authoritative at the same time.
Goodman’s innate affability makes Chambers an agreeable creation,
but Arkin frequently steals the film by serving almost as the audience’s
voice of hysterical reason in the midst of the lunacy of Mendez’s wonky
plan. There is a manner that
Arkin deadpans even the most insignificant of lines and makes them instant
and memorable knee-slappers, and his comic timing helps to counterbalance
the oppressive nihilism of the film.
in ARGO, though, comes to a head in its fever-pitched and anxiety-plagued
final 20 minutes, during which Affleck milks the tension of Mendez and
company at the Tehran airport desperately trying to bluff their way
through the vengeful and distrusting eyes of security.
I’ve seen countless thrillers in which lesser directors drum up a
false sense of intrigue by using obligatory and repetitive fist and gun
fights, but Affleck creates a squall of escalating and unsettling
uncertainty in viewers by simply making us fear for the consequences of
what will happen if Mendez and the other Americans are captured.
Of course, we all know what happened, but the fact that ARGO makes
us squeeze our theater arm rests with nagging and squirm-inducing unease
is to its esteemed credit. These final moments are an explosive adrenaline rush not
because they’re action-packed, but more for how cerebrally they work on
our worst primal fears for the characters' well being.
has been some controversy that has dogged the film in the manner it
depicts Canada’s participation in Mendez’s plan in a minimalist
fashion. I think this is
largely much ado about nothing.
As a Canadian, I can certainly attest to seeing how many perceive
ARGO as ostensibly a rallying patriotic call for American ingenuity and
courage that perhaps leaves Ambassador Taylor’s efforts a bit
historically muted. To be fair, Mendez took great personal risks in his
potentially dangerous mission, and the film rightfully places him front
and center (he was, after all, the man who would ultimately have to lead
and guide the Americans through the lion’s den, so to speak, careening
in and out of Tehranian streets and through the airport).
His successful efforts were awarded with accolades and a medal back
home, which he was forced to keep a secret for decades.
Ultimately, Affleck does not really marginalize Canadian
participation or their efforts (Taylor put his life in great jeopardy as
well) as he does more subtly pay homage to them.
He does end the film with a title card that relays how the
cooperation of Canada and the U.S. served as an “enduring model” that
stands to this day.
Also, bare this in mind: ARGO is a work of semi-fictional/semi-factual drama, so certain liberties are reasonably taken by Affleck et al, but not to the point of being obtrusive or offensive. The film is an eccentric hybrid that homogenizes all of its elements with a sure-fire confidence that’s rare these days, and Affleck – as a director – has a non-flashy technique of telling stories with the economical restraint of a Clint Eastwood and the cunningly politicized effectiveness of a Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula. ARGO cements Affleck as a natural filmmaking voice among the directorial elite; he’s that good, folks.