Argo

PhotobucketWhen Islamic militants seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, six members of the staff escaped and were allowed protection in the home of one Ken Taylor, Canadian Ambassador to Iran. This has popularly been referred to as The Canadian Caper due to the valiant efforts of the brave man who risked his own life and those of his loved ones to keep them hidden. However, it would only be a matter of time before they would be found and executed. The full disclosure recounting the extraction of these six US State Department personnel from Iran on January 28, 1980 was a closely held secret until the information was declassified in 1997.

Now it can be told how CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist Tony Mendez concocted a risky plan to get them out of the country. He would enter Tehran as a Canadian movie producer interested in scouting locations for an upcoming Star Wars rip-off called “Argo”, collect the refugees, pass them off as his cinema crew at the airport, and subsequently fly out of Iran. It’s the “best bad idea” they have. Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired article entitled “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” was loosely adapted into the events portrayed here that recount the saga from Tony Mendez’s point of view.

When one hears period piece about a diplomatic crisis, the eyes are liable to glaze over. Argo is based on a true story of a political nature but it never feels like a history lesson. In presenting his implausible strategy to rescue them, there’s a constant tightly wound anxiety – that things could go wrong at any moment. Director Ben Affleck wisely gives us a brief primer detaining the underlying reasons for the Iranian Revolution and specifically the Iran hostage crisis. It’s just an intro, but it’s a an incredibly crucial step in helping the audience understand the dangerous political climate for Americans that remained in Iran. It lays the groundwork for the many agonizing situations depicted. When our 6 evacuees must ultimately leave their protective domicile and mix with the general public, there are moments of unbearable pressure. Likewise a minor scene where the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper is questioned at the gate of their home is relentlessly tense.

One wouldn’t think there would be much room for levity in a film of this nature, but the script finds the humor in such an outlandish deception. Before Mendez can even set foot in Iran, he must consult with two Hollywood experts to make his production seem legitimate. Lester Siegel (fictional) is a former OSS agent turned movie producer and John Chambers (real) is a veteran makeup wizard. As played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman respectively, the pair are inadvertently involved but essential. The details they address to make this fabrication seem real is fantastic. They provide a satirically light touch to the drama, but their necessity in creating a plausible ruse shouldn’t be underestimated. It reinforces the concept of how many people were important to the success of this plan.

Argo is a brilliantly realized blending of historical fact and Hollywood fun to form a fascinating re-telling of the past. The production design is impeccably recreated. From the clothes to the hairstyles to a child’s bedroom filled with toys and posters, the era is strikingly accomplished. That also goes a long way in recreating the unbelievable undertaking into a satisfying period piece. The final act lightly rewrites the truth in order to gain a more heart pounding finish. It doesn’t quite feel credible, but it’s certainly engrossing. Affleck keeps the tension throughout and wisely focuses on the critical situations our 6 refugees have to face. We truly comprehend what they experienced in a very real way and that’s what makes this docudrama so effective. This thriller doesn’t attempt to deeply get your emotions, but it does entertain, and extremely well I might add.

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44 Responses to “Argo”

  1. This sounds right up my street, can’t wait to watch it! Ben Affleck should be given a lot of credit for his transformation as one of the most derided actors in Hollywood to one of the most accomplished filmmakers around today. Great review.

    • I know what you mean. He did Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl. Yikes! Then starting with Hollywoodland, he seems to have done a complete 180 and turned his career around. It’s interesting to note that 2 of the best films Ben Affleck has ever starred in also happen to be ones he directed. The Town and now Argo. (Gone Baby Gone was a great directorial debut in which he did not star.)

  2. I’ve got to see this one. I’ve forgiven Ben Affleck after he directed The Town and plus it has Bryan Cranston in it. Nice review.

    • I was never even aware of Bryan Cranston until he was in the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. Apparently he’s been acting on TV since the 80s. Besides Alan Arkin and John Goodman whom I mentioned above, Argo also features Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, and Kyle Chandler. Not the most famous names, but solid actors all.

  3. Glad to see you liked this as well. I agree with Andy about Ben’s transformation, I wonder who the next closeted directorial savant will be (my money’s on Matt Damon)

    As far as historical recreations go this is probably at or near the top of my list (unless you count WWII movies like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list)

    • Before Ben’s current hot streak, he had been nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award 7 times. With that logic, could our next accomplished director actually be someone with a similar hard luck story? Adam Sandler? ;-)

  4. Not a perfect movie, but a very entertaining one at that and I have to give Affleck a lot of credit for going out of his comfort zone, and really tackle a story not many people know about. However, the problem is that we all know how it ends. Good review Mark.

    • You bring up a valid point. However, even though I knew how it ended, it didn’t affect my interest. Somehow I still got caught up in the way everything unfolded. Affleck did take some liberties with the final scenes to increase tension, but I was on the edge of my seat.

  5. When I first saw the trailer for “Argo”, I dismissed it from my mind immediately. I believe I was seeing “Moonrise Kingdom” and had to stop myself from laughing at how dumb it looked. But every time I went to the theater from then on, I saw this trailer and it kept growing on me. Now I’m very excited for it.

    I have a question: Should I watch “Gone Baby Gone” and/or “The Town” prior to “Argo”? I realize the three are in no way related, but does Affleck equip a certain style I should get used to beforehand?

    Great review.

    • You should watch Gone Baby Gone and The Town because they’re great movies. Seeing them before you watch Argo is not necessary. Argo is very straightforward and stands on its own.

      P.S. What about the trailer got you “laughing at how dumb it looked?”

      • The Cinemaniac Says:

        I may have to go back and watch the trailer again (I’ve seen it more than any trailer recently, so it’s kind of muddied in my mind), but I remember the phrase “fake film” being mentioned frequently. I also remember one actor (forget who it was) saying in the trailer, “If I’m going to make a fake film, it’s going to be a fake hit,” which for me was a true WTF moment. Though I might have been a bit cynical of the film, as if Ben Affleck was trying to make his “8½” or something like that. Probably “misleading trailer syndrome”. ;)

    • Alan Arkin said that line. He along with John Goodman are the experts Ben consults with to make the fabricated film seem like a real production. They provide some light moments, but the overall feeling of the film is quite serious and very respectful of the events being depicted.

  6. Still have to wait for this to be released over here, but looking forward to it.

  7. After reading this, the film looks like a decent watch.

  8. Lots of positive press on this one, I’m excited for it! Mostly because I’ll watch anything with Bookman in it.

  9. It’s amazing to know that this was a true story. It was a great and very intense movie. I can’t even imagine being in that situation. Fine acting. Ben is a great director.

  10. Great review, Mark! Looking forward to Argo. Love Ben as a director.

  11. Brilliant review, Mark. I’m really excited for this one, but wasn’t quite sure of the tone. The trailer switches from comedy promise to serious political drama. Still have to wait a couple of weeks, but very much looking forward to seeing it.

  12. This doesn’t come out here until November 7th but there’s a chance I’ll be seeing a preview screening a week earlier, am looking forwards to it, as Affleck is turning into a rather decent director.

    • One of the best of the year. Sure to be an Oscar contender!

      • Finally saw it (had to miss a pre-release preview or i would have seen it a week earlier!) on opening night here, review is now up (http://wp.me/p1LZxf-Tk) and have to saw, just wow. Ben Affleck has more than proved himself as not just a capable director, but a pretty damned good one, not to mention a pretty damned fine performance that helps to carry the movie. Without a doubt this will be in my top ten movies when http://www.mondaymovieshow.co.uk does our round up for the year, and I absolutely expect to see it mentioned numerous times come the Oscars.

  13. I’ve been a fan of Affleck since ‘Good Will Hunting’. This film opens in Malaysia either this week (Skyfall week) or next, and after reading your review, I’m eager to see it.

    • Good it’s really great. Oh and for a really early Ben Affleck role, check out Dazed and Confused. He has a small part along with a lot of other actors that went on to bigger fame.

  14. I may be finally seeing this one this weekend.

  15. Somehow, Argo was sold out tonight. Out for a month, so it’s well near impossible, especially when everyone’s going to see Twilight and Lincoln. Oh well. So a Good Samaritan refunding his Lincoln tickets offered them to us (that was sold out to), and we’re seeing that now.

  16. I just got around to seeing this one. Absolutely loved it. Kinda wish I’d taken notes in the theater though because it’s so difficult to write about….

  17. Lesson learned: trailers can be misleading! lol!

  18. Mark, nothing against your well-thought-out-and-researched review, but you OBVIOUSLY need a contrary opinion, so …

    I thought it was sort of a routine escape and rescue thriller undermined by its audience indoctrinations, lackluster characterizations, unexplained implausibilites, manufactured plot tensions, and the long anti-climax. Maybe the MOST annoying was the degree to which the film makers managed to combine foul-mouthed decadence with presumptions of moral, political and cultural authority in the way that’s won the U.S. so many additional enemies in the Moslem world since the era portrayed in the movie.

    Ah, well, that’s Hollywood for you; but if THIS was the best movie of its year, I’m the Ayatollah.

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