A film review by Craig J. Koban October ,16, 2012

RANK:  #5

ARGO jjjj

2012, R, 120 mins.


Tony: Ben Afffleck / Jack: Bryan Cranston / John: John Goodman / Ken: Victor Garber / Lester: Alan Arkin / Bob: Tate Donovan

Directed by Ben Affleck / Written by Chris Terrio, based on a selection from “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman

ARGO 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. 

ARGO 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.

The 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. 



Taylor 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 being detected.  

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.  

Simple, right?  


From 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 credibility.  Affleck’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Preito (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) uses Istanbul as a substitute for Tehran without missing a beat; the result is always authentic. 

Affleck also balances all of ARGO’s divergent themes with a real razor sharp precision.  Terrio’s 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. 

The 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. 

Everything 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. 

There 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.

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