When you have a movie that begins with the disclaimer, “Based on a true story”, you already have certain factors working against you. One, there are probably a lot of books and/or articles written on the subject for people to fact check you. Two, there’s always the slight possibility that the people your movie is based on are still alive. And three, it really happened so we already know how it ends – unless you’re one of those people who didn’t realize that the Titanic was a real thing and not some made up James Cameron joint.
If you were to go solely based on the synopsis of the film without knowing it was a true story, you’d think someone got high and made the whole thing up. In 1979, six people escaped the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran after revolutionaries stormed the building and took 52 Americans hostage. Finding refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador, the six Americans, called The Houseguests, are smuggled out of Iran through the combined efforts of the Canadian government and the C.I.A. by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. To make the film credible, C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez recruits Hollywood producers and artists to make a real fake movie.
Ben Affleck, the director and star, deals with all of these factors head-on. The fact that this is true, the operation was declassified in 1997 by President Clinton, doesn’t detract from the intensity of the film from beginning to end. If you bothered to do your homework, you know how this ends. Hell, I just spoiled it for you in the above paragraph, but that doesn’t stop Affleck from making you question whether or not Mendez and The Houseguests will make it out alive. Affleck deftly brings out feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia in many scenes, amping up the tension in places you would and would not expect. There is a visceral reaction to hearing a mob shouting “Death to America” over and over in Farsi. And when the first image you see after the opening exposition is a man burning the American flag outside the embassy, you’re not going to stop biting your nails until it’s over. Every minute of screentime gives the impression that their discovery is imminent, which gives each scene its own weight and intensity. The Houseguests are trapped with the discovery of their whereabouts looming above them with each passing day. Mendez is on a time crunch to get the fake movie off the ground. And to prove their cover is legit the group must walk through the crowded and narrow bazaar with very little chance of escape if discovered.
The story and direction are made all the better by a phenomenal cast. Pulling double duty, Ben Affleck is no slouch playing Tony Mendez. It would be easy for people to say that he plays it flat, but Mendez is a man whose job is to study a room full of people, or even an individual person, and soak up the information he needs to accomplish his task. Surrounding Affleck is an amazing group of character actors, many of which will have you pointing at the screen and crying, “It’s that guy!” Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, and Zeljko Ivanek fill out the government side of the operation with Alan Arkin playing Hollywood producer Lester Siegel and John Goodman portraying real-life make-up artist John Chambers (famous for The Planet of the Apes). The Houseguests are also comprised of well-known, though nearly unrecognizable actors. Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishe give amazing performances and Victor Garber, for the very little time he’s on screen, is fantastic as the Candian Ambassador, Ken Taylor. There’s even a brief cameo by Michael Parks as Jack Kirby who did the storyboard art for Argo that pops up freqently throughout the film.
By all accounts, Affleck is three for three as a director. Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town were critical darlings and Argo has pretty much sealed his career as a thoughtful and inspired director. There are a lot of ways this movie could have gone wrong for Affleck. Not only is the premise nearly too implausible to be true, but the Iran Hostage Crisis was only 33 years ago, making it a much more prominent and relevant historical event than, say, World War II or The Titanic. The opening of the film alone shows Affleck’s dedication to getting it right. From the 70′s era Time Warner logo, to the storyboard exposition of the state of relations between the US and Iran leading up to the Hostage Crisis, Affleck is committed to his story without straying into too far into comparisons with our current issues in the Middle East. Of course, the obvious parallels between the 70s and present day are felt significantly through the use of actual news reports and interviews from the era. Watching Iranians being beaten in America as a form of retaliation or hearing a bespeckled teen advocate shooting Iranians evoks similar reactions from Americans towards Muslims after 9/11.
Argo is everything you want in a spy thriller. If Affleck doesn’t get a nomination for Best Director or Best Picture, I’ll definitely be shocked because this is a solid movie from beginning to end that could have easily turned sour had it been under the guidence of less sophisticated hand. I highly recommend this film, so go see it. Now!
And, on a personal note: One of the reasons I really wanted to see this movie is my own connection to not necessarily the events, but the era itself. My grandfather worked for Boeing back in the 70s and moved the whole family to Tehran while he was overseeing their program. My father spent his high school years in Iran and actually graduated at the U.S. Embassy in 1977, two years before the gates were stormed by revolutionaries. Though my father, grandmother, and my aunts got out of Iran that same year, my grandfather stayed until 1978 when the US started to evacuate Americans from the country. Growing up, I always heard stories from my dad and my grandparents about their time in Iran, so it was important to me to see this film because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it was like for them at the time.