On 4 November 1979, the United States and the world entered a new and violent era when Islamic students and militants stormed and seized the US embassy and 66 hostages in Tehran. The crisis would last for 444 days. Little known, though, is the story of the six American diplomats who escaped the hostage scene and were protected by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) until the CIA, in the guise of agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), can exfiltrate them all in “Argo.”
Truth is stranger than fiction and “Argo” is a case in point. Director-producer-star Ben Affleck takes Joshuah Bearman’s article Escape from Tehran and, with a script by Chris Terrio, does an honest, if Hollywood, job in bringing this harrowing story to life. The helmer takes the usual liberties with the events but this is only to further fuel the exciting true story.
Set on the day of the US embassy was invaded, “Argo” is from the perspective of those lucky Americans who avoided the plight of the 52 hostages (13 women and African-America personnel and one ill white diplomat were released by their captors). Actually, 12 originally escaped but six took the wrong way out and were captured and returned to the embassy with the rest of the hostages. The fortuitous decision by the six survivors (Joe and Kathleen Stafford, Mark Lijek and Cora Amburn-Lijek, Robert Anders and Lee Schatz) to go a different route took them to the Canadian ambassador and tentative safety.
The story really takes off, though, when CIA exfiltration expert Mendez is called in to save the hostages. The spooks come up with all kinds of possible rescue scenarios and settle upon one of the most far fetched: form a fake movie production fronted by makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), get the Canadian government to provide fake passports and spirit the six Americans out as members of a film company scouting locations for the faux film “Argo.” You cannot imagine this stuff and Affleck, with embellishments and invented dangers (as if things were not dangerous enough as it was), does a solid job in his follow-up following the great success of “The Town.”
All aspects of the production – from direction, acting, art direction, costume, writing to period detail and photography – are first rate and “Argo” shows the continuing evolution of a filmmaker in Ben Affleck. He and the rest of the large ensemble cast become their characters. The serious subject matter, with its tensions and fears, gets some welcome comic relief from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the two veteran filmmakers who get a kick out of producing their CIA “film.” The rest give appropriate gravitas to their roles and characters.
This rescue-adventure tale is a good bookend for Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty” about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. “Argo” is a lesser known story but, still, exciting and gripping all the way through. I give it a B+.
In 1979, in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed and 52 citizens taken prisoner. There were 6 who managed to slip away and find harbor in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber, "Titanic"). But they could only stay in hiding for so long before the revolutionaries discovered they were missing, so Canada and the U.S. turned to the C.I.A. for help getting them out. There was one such man for the job, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), whose friendship with "Planet of the Apes" makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, "Trouble with the Curve") inspired the plot to disguise them as a Canadian film crew scouting the fictitious science fiction film "Argo."
Determined to break out of his Boston-based beginnings, director/star Ben Affleck heads to a period set Iran, D.C. and Hollywood to make a wildly entertaining thriller (Screenplay by Chris Terrio based on Joshuah Bearman's Wired article) about a little known sideline to the Iran Hostage Crisis. His latest feels like the quality films we used to get from major studios and directors like Sydney Pollack. "Argo" suffers from some obviously fictitious suspense boosters in its last act, the mechanics of its screenplay shining through, but this is clearly the work of the same man who made "The Town" work so well with its shifts from humor to life-or-death suspense and the use of cross-cutting to build multiple story lines to a head. And, somewhat akin to "The China Syndrome," it has the distinction of having history repeat itself right as it's released.
The film begins with an Iranian history primer detailing the shift in power from the Shah to the Ayatollah via animation, archival footage, stills and comic book frames before segueing to a recreation of the Embassy riots and the panic within. We become aware of the tremendous technological changes since that time as paper documents are shredded and incinerated. Bob Anders (Tate Donovan, TV's 'Damages') takes charge to lead Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy, "Monsters") and his wife Kathy (Kerry Bishé, "Red State"), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane, "Dazed and Confused") and newly wedded State Dept. newbies Mark (Christopher Denham, "Shutter Island") and Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall, "Zodiac," "Conviction") out of the mayhem. They may be hunkered down in an ambassador's house, but his housekeeper Sahar (Sheila Vand) is an Iranian of unknown loyalties and already revolutionaries are piecing together mounds of shredded documents which will reveal their presence.
Meanwhile, Mendez and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston, AMC's 'Breaking Bad') are brainstorming with the State Dept. whose best idea is to give the group a cover as bicycle tourists and have them cover 300 miles of rough terrain before facing a border crossing. Then Mendez contacts his Hollywood connection, who, in turn, comes up with a seasoned producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine," in a composite role), a seasoned vet with enough chutzpah to front the fake production. While Affleck never forgets his Tehranian luxury bunker situation and its frightened occupants, he takes the time for a little humor here and Arkin and Goodman make the insider dialogue snap and crackle (a frequently repeated four letter put down punning on the fake movie's name is sure to become a catchphrase). If at first Siegel's worried he's getting involved in a suicide mission, he's soon hosting a full blown press event complete with costumed extras ('If you want to sell a lie, you get the press to sell it for you'). 'This is the best bad idea we have sir,' O'Donnell tells a State Department higher up (Philip Baker Hall) and the production is greenlit.
From this point we follow Mendez as he makes his contacts within Iran to establish the C.I.A.'s cover story, but he must also work to gain his charges' trust. A late breaking demand requires that he bring all six out of the house for the first time to publicly visit Tehran's bazaar where an incident takes place that draws attention to the group. The build up to the actual flight features one obstacle after another, from Sahar being questioned by revolutionaries at the front gate to Mendez deciding to go forward despite the cancellation of his mission.
The screenwriting screws are over tightened for the suspenseful ending. Chambers and Siegel leave their shut down office and are kept from returning by a live film set just when Mendez might need their corroboration via phone. O'Donnell discovers the airline tickets have been scrubbed along with the mission and only POTUS can remand the decision. When they're detained at the airport, one of the six begins speaking Farsi and we wonder how he'll hold on to his cover story (and its delightful, more Hollywood in action). Finally when their plane's pilot is told he's in the second position for takeoff I had a wee chuckle at the transparency of playing the audience and the filmmakers still rachet up the odds against them. And yet there's no denying how enjoyable all this is.
I don't think Affleck smiles once in the title role, as wearing a beard and a grim expression would equate to seriousness of purpose. He does command trust, however. Clearly the actor did the same behind the camera leading one of the year's largest ensembles. Goodman and that American treasure Arkin have the most fun, but everyone pulls their weight. There is a wealth of talent in the smallest roles - "Super 8's" Kyle Chandler briefly as Hamilton Jordan, '24's' Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, Richard Kind ("A Serious Man") as a screenwriter, 'Maude's' Adrienne Barbeau in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it cameo as Siegel's ex-wife.
The production ably apes the late 70's as shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Istanbul and L.A. stand in for Tehran) with dynamic editing by William Goldenberg ("Heat," "Gone Baby Gone"). The film winds down with the celebration of Canada's role in the mission whose top secret classification kept U.S. involvement under wraps until 1997. There's a bit of politicking as we hear Jimmy Carter saying how he wished he could have taken some credit at the time (Reagan claimed glory for the entire hostage release which Carter negotiated until his final days in office). On a more personal level, we see the toll the job took on Mendez's family life and learn he received his organization's highest honor - secretly. And who knew a Hollywood makeup effects artist was once awarded the C.I.A.'s highest civilian honor? With "Argo," Affleck's proved beyond a doubt he's an A-list filmmaker.
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