★★★½ out of 5
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone)
The most heroic film never made. If Argo became an actual film, it would immediately be laughed off the screen. But what started as a joke turned into a real life exit strategy for the CIA. It is a story so ridiculous…well they had to make a real film about it! First time scribe Chris Terrio adapts the short article by Joshua Bearman about the declassified story of American Embassy hostages trapped in Iran in 1979. For his third time, Ben Affleck is behind the camera, attempting to recreate the gravity of a desperate situation in a time of despair.
Ben Affleck also stars as Tony Mendez, a “specialist” in extracting people from difficult locations. After being briefed on the American Embassy being attacked in Iran, it is found that the six American escapees are taking refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador. Hilariously over a conference, they discuss possible exit options. Give them bicycles and they can ride to the border. “Or you can just meet them at the border with Gatorade” quips Mendez.
So they pick Argo, a Canadian science fiction film blatantly ripping off Star Wars and Planet of the Apes. It is the best bad idea they have. As a part of their cover they hire a producer (Alan Arkin) and make up expert (John Goodman) to make their story seem legitimate. This creates surprising channels of humour, especially from Arkin, who coins the phrase Argo-fuck-yourself.
But the meat and potatoes of this story does take place in Iran as the urgency rises because time is running out. The terrorists looking for those missing from the embassy are getting closer and closer. Affleck raises the tension creating a chaotic atmosphere in Iran, one that is clouded with paranoia and uncertainty. When will they come? Should they move? I did not know how this story played out and was eager to find out the result
But also was struck me about the film was how we know so much about the historicism and authenticity of that time period, but how little we knew about the subjects of this horrifying situation. To me, they were just six people trapped in a house trying to escape. If you asked me their names right now I would not be able to recall them. Argo tries to distinguish the human element of the film from the tense atmosphere, but it gets lost in it instead. Same with the CIA back home. Cranston is great in his role, but he is painfully underused. It is all about that time, in that moment, but the people are not at the front of the story as they should be
That handicaps the film from creating a true emotional center. But the intensity is simply too much. Affleck mixes archival footage with a vivid attention to the film dynamic of creating such a world. It feels like a documentary in parts with Affleck pushing the camera through the crowds of protesters and shop keepers. But the crowning moment is the climax of the film at the airport. Even though Argo makes you pretty much know the ending, the suspense of getting to that ending is what is enthralling. It is a tricky build worth the wait of the movie.
Is Argo a feel good movie? How about just a good movie? Yes, it is. But Affleck has a greater attention to characters in his other two films The Town and Gone Baby Gone. I feel it is somewhat designed to be Oscar bait. But that should not take away from how talented Affleck really is behind the camera. Will he be the next Clint Eastwood? Maybe. For know, Argo is an unbelievable true story told probably as well as it possibly could have without feeling drawn out. You are dropped in the midst of turmoil, and only after Argo is finished, does the tension settle. Maybe Argo will actually have the movie with the tagline “the movie that was never made because it was made to save lives” This fake movie was more than a fake hit. The resulting heroism was inexplicably real.
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