Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall
When you create a catastrophic mess, the least you can do is clean it up. That remains my takeaway from a film that displays how those who serve this country carry the burden of the nation’s mistakes. It takes a miraculous rescue attempt, which Argo documents in such a tense and efficient way.
Following Iranian citizens storming the United States embassy in Tehran and taking the workers hostage, six of them escape and receive refuge from the Canadian ambassador. With nothing but bad options, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) sets up a fake movie in order to provide cover stories and get them out.
Context is everything in storytelling and Argo could have settled to be a basic patriotic tale of how the CIA saved Americans from brutal savages. I was initially surprised that it did not go that route, much like something Clint Eastwood would have done. Instead, the film opens with a bit of a history lesson on how American interference with Iranian leadership led to a harsh rule, which left many citizens in a state of starvation. All while the American-placed ruler lived a life of opulence. The upcoming revolution and the American response set off the events of the embassy workers being taken hostage. Giving that context is extremely important because most people certainly don’t know that backstory seeing as it does not fall within our American Exceptionalism history courses in school but it also provides a reason why the Iranians harbor hate for this country. Argo doesn’t try to side with the Iranians on the matter, but it shows why wrong actions were taken on both sides.
As a result, the film works incredibly well from a storytelling perspective, but also from setting the mood. Argo develops such a tense atmosphere around every conversation and interaction between the characters, which must be attributed to Ben Affleck’s directing. At the time of this review, I’m fresh from seeing it for the second time and even knowing every moment of the story, I still felt incredibly tense. There were points when my heart started racing because getting these Americans out of Iran felt like a suicide mission that had a very small chance of success. That defines when a film goes from good to great for me. Affleck’s directing record may be hit or miss but when it does, they hit hard. Not only with this film, but also Gone Baby Gone. It’s gotten to the point where I think he directs better than he acts.
Argo won Best Picture in 2013 because it’s a great film, but also for one special reason that allows several films to take the top prize at the Academy Awards. That reason comes from the story being about Hollywood saving the day. No one likes to pat themselves on the back more than Hollywood and this film displayed just that. The entire operation hinged on the CIA creating a fake film that would have its crew traveling to Iran to look at possible shooting locations. That provided the cover for Mendez to get into the country and grab the stowaway Americans. It seems like such a wacky idea, but all of the other options would not fare much better.
The best performances of the entire film come from two legends in John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who both portray Hollywood players that helped set up the fake film. Arkin, in particular, provided the little comedy that this film could handle. From his expert ways of handling a Hollywood room to the famous line, “Argo fuck yourself” that certainly was funny the first few times but the screenwriters overplayed their hand a bit too many times. Those two provided the comedic reprieve while Affleck’s Mendez had to handle the emotions of the Americans in trying to have them learn their cover well enough to withstand questioning.
That cover story becomes a high point of tension in the film that really pushes against the audience. As audience members, we have faith that Mendez excels in his job because that’s all we’ve been led to believe. However, Mendez needs to convince Americans that are scared for their lives that they need to memorize a slim cover identity from front to back. It felt incredibly human in that way. I had this recurring feeling of telling them to suck it up, which would be easy for me to say because I’m not in their shoes.
Rightfully garnering accolades, Argo tells a tense story that never loses its grip. It shows the high amount of collaboration needed to pull off something that crazy. The events of the actual extraction may have been glamorized as most Hollywood films do, but it displays the heroism of those involved. Undoubtedly, Americans created the mess that Mendez needed to help clean up, but saving innocent lives still remains a noble deed.