For a while I wanted to combine my review of Skyfall with this one. Then I realized that each one of these movies deserved their own individual post. It is interesting that, as we get a great James Bond movie set in the modern world, we also get one of the best spy thrillers in a long time and that it takes place during the Cold War. They’re almost perfect juxtapositions of what we all grew up thinking working in the spy business involved (running, shooting, bedding dangerous models) versus what it is (a lot of planning, a lot of prep work and a dash of luck).
Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 and focuses on a secret CIA rescue mission that wasn’t declassified until the late 1990s. As Iranian students storm the US embassy, six staff members escape through a side door. Desperate for a hiding place, they find refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. However, after three months in hiding, the Canadian government is ready to shut down their embassy and recall their entire staff, which puts the “six houseguests” as they come to be known in a precarious position. How can they escape in a country where everyone is looking for them?
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA expert on getting high value people out of dangerous, hot spots, better known as exfiltration (or “exfil”). He somehow ends up with the task of coming up with a way of getting the houseguests out of Iran. His solution? Hide them in plain sight by disguising them as the pre-production crew of a science-fiction movie called “Argo.” But in order for the ploy to work, he needs to make “Argo” a semi-reality. He needs to create a production company in Hollywood, prepare promotional material and even sell the press on the idea that “Argo” is a real movie that is really happening. To that end, he brings in former ally John Chambers, a famous special effects and make-up guy who he’s worked with in the past and producer Lester Siegel to help make “Argo” as close to a reality as possible.
Part of the success of the movie can be chalked up to the veteran cast that Ben Affleck has around him. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play his Hollywood connection and seem to be having a blast riffing on their industry. The script reading party that they host is both funny and cringe-worthy. Bryan Cranston plays his boss, a frustrated CIA supervisor who trusts Mendez even as he knows that this is, at best, a long shot. You’ll also find Kyle Chandler, Michael Parks, Zeljko Ivanek, Tate Donovan and Richard Kind all playing a part in the proceedings. From the cinematography of Rodrigo Pietro (Brokeback Mountain, Alexander) and the editing of William Goldenberg (Heat, The Insider) to the music by Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows), this looks, sounds and feels like a grown-up movie. What makes it so great is that it’s all seamlessly fit into the movie. All the hard work pays off in making Argo a solid film.
At the core, though, this is the story of Mendez and it’s interesting to juxtapose his work for the CIA against the images and ideas that people have of spies – like James Bond. Affleck’s Mendez is a family man whose family is going through a rough patch. He’s confident but it’s interesting to note how easily he blends into the background. He’s comfortable around the big personalities of Siegel and Chambers as well as standing up to more powerful elements of the State and Intelligence departments. But he’s neither flashy nor needs the spotlight. He never flashes a gun or scale walls to enter secret places. He uses his skills in presenting to his marks exactly the image of what he says he is.
The movie does a smart job of avoiding the politics of either that time or the ones currently at play. Obviously, the Hostage Crisis and the Iranian Revolution are major conflagration points in the history of the region. Instead Argo is singularly focused on the rescue mission – how it came to be, how it was planned, how it was executed. This allows the movie to sidestep political and regional feelings. Even as they’ve made a few historical mistakes (The British and Kiwis that are said to turn them away? Not true), the movie manages to capture how it felt to live through those days, when things appeared to be turning dark.
The movie has a strong sense of dread running through it. In spite of us knowing how the story ends, Argo immerses you into its story and allows you to forget that simple fact. As the story progresses to the actual exfiltration of the houseguests, things ratchet up for all involved. Fear of dead Americans on the news tugs at the short and curlies of the State Department. Meanwhile, the crew of “Argo” is forced to actually go through some of their “work” while chaperoned by an Iranian Culture Minister. The fear of the houseguests and of Mendez becomes our own and its not until almost the very end of the movie that it is lifted. I’d love to see Affleck direct an out-and-out horror film. I think he could do great with it (maybe Phantoms II?)
Argo is another feather in the cap of director Ben Affleck. This is his third movie (after Gone Baby Gone and The Town) and in the years since he first began directing, his hand has become very steady at it. He picks smart projects and gets the most out of them. He surrounds himself with great casts and crews and allows them to bring the most of their talents forward. I will eagerly await what he does next, regardless of the genre.
BTW, this is the poster of “Argo” that was made in 1980 to convince everyone that it was really a movie going into pre-production.