Every once in a while a film is everything you hope it would be. Take Argo for example; the concept was as unique as they come. A CIA extractor, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is sent into 1979 Tehran by the government to retrieve six Americans who fleed the American Embassy, before it was overrun in Iran creating a long and scary hostage situation, and sought refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
Disguised as a film producer, Mendez arrived in the Middle East pretending to scout locations for a new science fiction film, named “Argo,” create elaborate covers for the Americans and ensure their safe exit out of the country. Mendez was to rendezvous with the Americans and escort them with a well-rehearsed plan to dupe the heavily armed airport security.
Seems far-fetched? It is. But it actually happened and remember this was the time period after Star Wars, which was made in the deserts of Tunisia. The case was declassified during the President Bill Clinton’s term and the story was sitting there waiting to be made, because even Hollywood couldn’t make up something as good as this.
Argo is a period telling of the bold rescue mission, complete without shootouts or some wild chase scenes on the rooftops of Tehran. Instead it’s a fascinating look at the manufacturing of the Hollywood movie machine, with director Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin) and movie makeup magician John Chambers (John Goodman) assisting Mendez while he raced against the clock against the Iranians, who put to work women and children to piece together the identity of the missing hostages by piecing together shredded papers like a jigsaw puzzle.
Mendez had to make Argo as authentic as possible, from buying a script, collecting a cast, staging a press junket and public script reading-in costumes- and after viewers are given a crash course on 1970′s Hollywood, Mendez still has to convince the Americans in Tehran that his highly improbably plan could work. Back in the nation’s capital is Mendez’s superior Jack O’Donnell (Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston) jockeying with Capitol Hill to get the support his man needs to carry out the plan, but bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness is never in short of supply.
These are the stories we can’t get enough of. The ones that are heavily guarded and make us wonder what other cool stories exist within the CIA. We’d like to think that every mission of espionage is complete with the typical action film staples, but most of the time, it’s the missions like this that just require some hard thinking and covert execution that makes for a legendary tale.
Hearts will pound as Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé, and Christopher Denham captured the air of terror, fear as well as the lack of faith in Mendez. They played people out of their expertise who had to be the best actors, playing people behind-the-scenes of the movie business or else they would be hung in public.
It says something when tension is maintained throughout even though the ending comes as no surprise. Cranston, Arkin and Goodman provide apt moments of levity, while Affleck, holds it altogether, further distancing himself from Armageddon and Gigli with directing efforts on Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Each intense moment is cut by some information we can gather about Mendez’s home life or the motives behind why each hostage chose to serve in the embassy.
Affleck’s versatility on Argo is something to be marveled at; he succeeded at anchoring the performances of the others, directing and producing. Everything from the ill-conceived fashion of the 70s to the overgrown hairdos just fit the tone of the film. Art direction and casting was superb across the board and unfortunately, our relationship with Iran is still poor, making Argo a lean thriller that’s timely and profound, and made even better because it did happen, because sometimes, real life is truly stranger than fiction.