It’s borderline shocking that no major American filmmaker has tried to make a movie about the Iranian Hostage Crisis until now. You’ve got a tight, controlled scenario for character study, plenty of possible suspense, major historical implications (the crisis essentially toppled Jimmy Carter’s presidency) and obvious parallels to relations between America and the Middle East post-9/11. What’s not to love if you’re, say, Steven Spielberg? Come on, people, David Lean would’ve been all over this by now.
So it falls to Ben Affleck, one of our newest and most unexpected masters of genre film, to give the Iranian Revolution the Hollywood thriller treatment. Gradually Affleck has been broadening his scope as a director – after sticking to his hometown of Boston for his first two films (“Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”), the former blank tabloid personality has taken on a project of much greater global and thematic scope in “Argo.” It’s an incredibly smart project for Affleck, meshing his talent for well-executed, suspenseful set-pieces with a new-found post-modern playfulness. “Argo” is essentially a story about stories, successfully bringing together completely disparate elements and atmospheres in a gentle ribbing of the entire “based on true events” genre.
Inspired by a Wired article that came out in 2007, “Argo” follows a little-known side-story in the Hostage Crisis saga. When the American embassy in Tehran was seized by Islamic revolutionaries, six diplomatic workers escaped out a back door and ultimately found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The CIA was assigned the delicate task of extracting the six “houseguests” without endangering the 52 hostages. Completely stymied, the agency came up with a plan that sounds too ridiculous to be true: they would send in a man pretending to be the producer of a Hollywood science-fiction movie, who would then take the houseguests out of the country with him as his film crew.
This is itself a perfect conceit for a movie, giving Affleck the chance to simultaneously skewer and ennoble Hollywood. A lesser film might not be able to handle the drastic shifts in tone between the scenes set in L.A., which aim far more towards broad comedy, and those in Iran, where Tinseltown’s absurdities become a life-or-death affair. But Affleck the director pulls off the delicate balance, with a surprising assist from Affleck the actor. As Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who both designed and executed the plan, Affleck proves a remarkably steady presence, maintaining an air of professionalism no matter what the situation. Even in his near-parody scenes with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), the two Hollywood insiders who help Mendez create a convincing front for his fake movie, Mendez keeps down to brass tacks, the weight of the task given to him clearly felt.
Affleck also keeps a distinctive atmospheric through-line with the use of archival news footage and numerous exact period details. Even when Affleck isn’t directly using Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel, his imagery is obviously based on real photos and newsreels from the time (the closing credits make this clear in some revelatory side-by-side comparisons). I obviously didn’t live through the Hostage Crisis, but I can imagine that the troubled, uncertain atmosphere of “Argo” reflects the real deal pretty accurately. Particularly in the American scenes, there’s that same peculiar mood that the country had during the Iraq War or the recent embassy attacks – the unease of being indirectly threatened, the knowledge that there is great unrest somewhere… just not here.
Of course, in the Iranian scenes, the danger is very real and direct. As superb as the rest of the film is, it never quite matches the brilliance of the opening siege of the embassy, an expertly paced sequence that sets up the stakes for the entire rest of the film. When Mendez arrives in Tehran, the actors playing the houseguests (including Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Rory Cochrane) do an excellent job of expressing the incredible tension these people have been living with. Their combination of desperation and cautiousness nearly paralyzes them, but after some requisite fence-sitting, they all decide to take a chance with Mendez (with Affleck again exuding the kind of calm competence that would be believably persuasive in this kind of situation).
This all leads to a bravura finale at the airport that should a textbook model for any Hollywood thriller. Last-minute phone calls, suspicious revolutionary guards and a runway chase scene keep the audience on the edge of their seats despite the houseguests’ escape being obvious (it doesn’t count as a spoiler if it’s historical, people). Again, it all seems too good to be true…and of course, this time it is. In real life, Mendez and the houseguests proceeded on to a plane and out of the country quite uneventfully. You could fault Affleck for the usual kind of Hollywood exaggeration, but I think there’s a layer of self-consciousness here that raises “Argo’s” climax above most genre fare (while at the same time remaining wonderfully entertaining). Affleck is selling us a story, the same way Mendez sold his imaginary production company to Hollywood and sold an imaginary movie to the Iranian revolutionary guard. Right from the start, Affleck is slyly reminding us of his own craftwork when he explains the historical background of the Iranian Revolution threw story-board style illustrations. And it’s no coincidence that the tagline “The movie was fake, the mission was real” applies to both the film-within-the-film and “Argo” itself. Sometimes you have to fake it to make it.
The vast ensemble of reliable character actors delivers the earnestness necessary to pull off this Hollywood paradox. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, Bryan Cranston, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Richard Kind, Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek and Titus Welliver are all great in relatively brief roles. Arkin and Goodman get to steal the show with their comedic chops, but they could’ve thrown the whole film’s balance off if the more “serious” roles hadn’t performed equally well. Just as Affleck declares that the “Argo” mission was a sterling example of international diplomatic cooperation, his film is itself a team effort. Hopefully he won’t get all the credit come Oscar time.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars