I don’t think Ben Affleck could have possibly foreseen the tragedy at our embassy in Libya a month prior to his great new film, “Argo,” making its way to theatres. However, that only makes the film all the more timely in this tense period of American-Middle East relations. I bring up what happened in Benghazi not to trivialize the loss of life, but because I can’t imagine you reading this review without that on your mind.
But on to the film. This is Affleck’s third as a director, after “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” and it feels like he is just hitting his stride as a filmmaker. Both of those films were pretty serious affairs, and this one is as well, but Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio use the absurdity of this remarkable true story to their advantage. In case you don’t know, the film takes place during the Iranian hostage crisis, where revolutionaries, upset at the United States’s harboring of their deposed, former dictator, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, and took 52 hostages. Six Americans, however, snuck out of the back, and found safe haven in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Back in Washington, the CIA brainstorms ideas, but none of them seem like plausible solutions in getting the six out. However, one night, a CIA extractor named Tony Mendez (Affleck, in his best acting work in years) has a wild idea: go into Tehran as a Canadian film producer, create covers for the six as location scouts for a science fiction adventure, and fly out together. Talk about the truth being stranger than fiction.
And yet, it worked, and until 1997 (when the Clinton administration declassified the tale), we were completely unaware of it having happened. Near the end we hear the words of former President Jimmy Carter, who speaks about why it had to be kept under wraps for so long with an eloquence and level of authority he hasn’t been given by the press for decades. True, the hostage crisis the world watched, which lasted for over a year, and likely led to Carter losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, ended up being both a unifying moment in American history (remember the yellow ribbons in solidarity with the hostages?), as well as an embarrassment of American diplomacy, but the courage of Carter, Mendez, and the other extraordinary Americans (as well as our friends to the north) to not only contemplate this scheme, but also execute it successfully, is one of the most shining examples of not only American values, but also ingenuity, in our 230-year history as a country. History sets the bar high for Affleck as a director…
…and he clears it with almost absurd ease. The opening sequence of the film, where Affleck stages the siege on the Embassy, is the most riveting use of archival footage blended with recreated events since “JFK.” We are on the edge of our seats, witnessing history unfold, and we are with the characters every step of the way as diplomats burn and shred documents, and the six who escape behave as we would during a crisis situation, with fear and anxiety, but also resolve when they decide to lead Iranians looking for visas out a back door, and take their chances on the streets. We also get an idea of a government handcuffed by real-life, with no easy answers, when we see the wheels being greased in Washington as events unfold, information becomes known, and the clock ticks more rapidly for the six in hiding. The Iranians used students to piece together shredded papers, so that when the images of the six who escaped become clear, and the Iranians know that some are missing, we feel extraordinary tension with the ones who got away as they are forced into a life-or-death situation that, though we know the outcome, must have been an impossible choice for the real people.
I’ve focused so much on the actual story that I haven’t really looked at the movie as a movie, but that should show how successful Affleck is as a director. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the look at the Hollywood side of the story, when Mendez recruits Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) and old-school producer Lester Siegel (the terrific Alan Arkin) to put together the film production front. We see the trio piling over scripts, taking meetings with agents, commissioning storyboards, and putting on a script reading to get covered in Variety. They know that this needs to be air tight, because if not, six people will die. No movie ever, really, has the power to change people’s lives in a palpable sense, but this one (which never happened) really did, and the odds of this being successful were impossible at best. No other Hollywood production has made such a difference, and “Argo”– with so much else to talk about, from the across-the-board great performances (including Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s CIA boss, and Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador in Iran) to the flawless craftsmanship behind the camera– honors that with emotional weight and an old school sense of excitement that Hollywood has a hard time duplicating nowadays.