Argo (2012) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA rated: R for language and some violent images
Running time: 120 min.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scott McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina
Cameo: Jimmy Carter (voice)
Director: Ben Affleck
Screenplay: Chris Terrio (based on the article, "Escape from Tehran", by Joshuah Bearman)
Review published November 22, 2012

Argo 2012 Ben AffleckBen Affleck (State of Play, Smokin' Aces) stars and directs this amazing story based on real-life events based on a secret mission of the CIA, led by expert exfiltration agent Tony Mendez.  The events take place in 1979, where six American residents of the US Embassy in Tehran happen to get away from capture from an unruly Iranian mob looking to hold them for ransom in order to garner the return (and certain death) of the locally despised Shah of Iran, who fled in exile to the U.S.,  The six eventually find a temporary safe haven within the Canadian Embassy, though the situation appears to be growing ever bleaker, as nosy militants seem to be on the verge of discovering their identities and whereabouts. 

US President Jimmy Carter is in a bind with the bulk of the hostages, while Mendez, dissatisfied with every other idea he has heard to get the six out comes up with a unique one of his own -- pretend to go to Iran on a location shoot for a big-budget sci-fi film named "Argo", making the six hostages part of the production crew, complete with Canadian passports and assumed identities, and then fly them out unawares.

Although the backstory is a complicated bit of geopolitics, Affleck does a wonderful job keeping the focus small and simple, working with the adept script by first-time feature screenwriter Chris Terrio.  The opening scenes are simple but compelling scenario of the political upheaval that took place in Iran throughout the 20th Century to get it to the religious state that took the country over in 1979 that would put Ayatollah Khomeini in power, and how the U.S. had aided and abetted Western-friendly regimes that are now despised there.  Affleck is able to weave several styles into the whole without losing much, as the vibe goes from political intrigue to satire to family drama to thriller in a mostly seamless fashion, but always pressing down on the tension that makes each successive scene seem dire and fascinating within the context of the overall story.

All is not dour and meant for political eggheads.  Much of the story involving the making of the Star Wars retread, Argo, is played for laughs, featuring mostly comedic performances by an adept, seasoned Alan Arkin (The Change-Up, Get Smart) and supporting turn by John Goodman (The Artist, Speed Racer) as a special effects guru (indeed, the supporting cast is chock full of truly great character actors throughout).  Satirical moments abound, as Arkin shops the script around, giving subtle but effective knocks on how deals get done in dog-eat-dog Hollywood, especially in how the film industry has been changing in the blockbuster era, with each studio looking for that next huge hit.  But is is also a knowingly bad movie production, with cheesy costumes and a story filled with cardboard characterizations, that makes it all the more strikingly funny (often absurd) when juxtaposed with the seriousness and earnestness by which the real-life characters must sell their love for the project in order to survive the ever-questioning eye of the Irani populace around them.

As fine as the screenplay is, as well as Affleck's eye for the times, there final half hour does engage in a good deal of Hollywood-ization of the story, somewhat to the detriment of the high ground taken by much of the rest of the fascinating events.  Such scenes as whether or not someone picks up a phone call, or last-second attempts at a chase, seem incongruous with the nature of the rest of the movie, though many viewers will be willing to forgive a bit (or a lot) of dramatic license in order to deliver a climax worthy of such a tense and intelligent buildup. 

Ben Affleck does a fine job with a solid but not flashy performance as the heroic Mendez, but it's really his work behind the camera, his third fine piece in a row, that is his most impressive contribution.  Not flashy but dynamic, Affleck knows when to stick to story, and just how much to let loose for the sake of comic relief and emotional moments (Mendez is shown as struggling to be a good father despite having to be away on missions much of the time). 

As the credits roll and we see the scenes in the film juxtaposed with actual shots of 1979 Tehran, and we see how each actor bears an uncanny resemblance to their real-life historical participant, it is finally when we hear the words of none other than Jimmy Carter, US President during the ordeal, that we realize that the film serves as a form of redemption for that man who was viewed, thanks to the Iran hostage affair and a botched, tragic rescue attempt, as a weak and ineffectual leader.  As Argo consistently shows throughout, things aren't always what they might seem to the world outside.
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo