The real deal
Truth is stranger than fiction in Affleck’s winning thriller
By Tim Pompey 10/18/2012
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Rated R for language and some violent images
When the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by an Iranian mob in 1979, all eyes were on those being held hostage. What few knew at the time was that six other Americans had fled from the embassy compound. Eventually, all of them ended up hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Argo is the story of how they managed to escape Iran and make it back home.
It’s a true story, embellished for dramatic purposes, but the bones are there — a wild tale of steel nerves, Hollywood deception and a lot of luck. Director Ben Affleck and screenwriters Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman may have written and edited this to ratchet up the energy, but that doesn’t take away from what actually happened. It’s a pretty darn good story, and so is this movie.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is a CIA “exfiltration” specialist whose job is to get folks secretly and safely out of tight spots. When the CIA is asked to help free the six Americans, he is called in to work with the team.
In the beginning, ideas are scarce, but one night, while watching a Planet of the Apes film, Tony gets an idea. Make a fake sci-fi film with a fake script and director. Find fake producers in Los Angeles to sell the Hollywood press on a fake movie called Argo. Fly Mendez into Tehran and give the six Americans fake identities as part of a movie location team. Then, make arrangements to fly them out of the country.
It’s a far-fetched proposal that doesn’t go down well with either the CIA team or the folks at the State Department, but as it turns out, it’s the best idea they’ve got. All of them roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and give Tony the green light. What follows is better than anything a Hollywood script writer could dream up.
While Affleck as an actor has gone through his share of mishaps, as a director, he knows how to piece together a good thriller. His previous films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, hinted at his directing talent. Here, it’s on full display.
He starts by recreating the revolutionary atmosphere of Iran at the start of the Islamic revolution in late 1979 and early 1980. Piecing together staged CIA briefings with actual news footage, Affleck captures the shock and dismay of Americans over the invasion of their embassy and the anger and hostility of Iranians toward Jimmy Carter for granting the Shah of Iran diplomatic safety in the U.S.
Affleck effectively pulls together the strands of the Iranian hostage crisis — the political ineptitude, the helplessness and the fallout that still haunts the U.S. every time Congress and the president deal with the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Then he builds the story around a great cast of characters: Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, Tony’s CIA supervisor; John Goodman and Alan Arkin as John Chambers and Lester Siegel, Argo’s fake movie producers; Affleck himself as the unflappable Tony Mendez.
But what’s most effective is Argo’s pacing and energy, plus something that you might not expect in a taut political thriller: humor. Dark humor that peels back the layers of Hollywood’s blowhard mentality and pokes fun at the fakes who buy the fake.
What’s more, Argo’s final chapter may go down as one of the classics in film history, a manual for future film students on how to create the perfect ending.
Argo is a story about gamesmanship, chutzpah and Hollywood panache, all subjects that Affleck knows well. As the saying goes, “You can’t make this stuff up.” Fortunately for him and for us, he didn’t.