Bravo, Ben Affleck. He scored big in his first two directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and he finally hit the jackpot with with this Academy Award winner for Best Picture. His attention to detail and instinct as a director is apparent in his latest feature, which chronicles the classified “Canadian Caper” CIA operation that took place in 1980 during the Iran hostage crisis.
The film opens up with the Iranian Revolution at a boiling point, as young revolutionaries storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in retaliation for America’s sheltering of the Shah. As most of the staff is taken hostage, six evade capture and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The opening scene takes a good ten minutes to play out, but the attention to detail is worth it. The anger and frustration of the Iranian people is palpable, as is the danger to the Americans inside. It’s this early scene-setting that sets the tense mood for the rest of the film and really glues you to your seat.
The escapees’ situation is kept a secret, and the State Department begins looking into extraction options. CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in on a consulting basis, and quickly exposes the weaknesses of the proposed ideas. While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes that night, Mendez slowly puts together a cover story for the escapees, in which they are Canadian filmmakers scouting exotic locations in Iran. After consulting with his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), the two contact Academy Award-winning make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who in turn puts them in contact with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).
Thus, the fake film “Argo” is born. Mendez is to extract the six escapees under the guise that they are all scouting for the movie. Chambers and Siegel set up a phony production studio, and the plan is put into action as the entire State Department holds its collective breath.
Argo works not only as a thrilling rescue flick, but also as a sort of period piece. It captures the fear and resentment of the time, both within the U.S. and Iran. These two worlds are carefully connected through radio broadcasts and TV newsrooms, using actual footage to heighten the realism. The escapees are well written and they act accordingly – I found myself unwittingly gripping the armrest and silently pulling for the six scared Americans. The use of montage and quick cuts helps keep some of the slow scenes interesting and your attention focused, which really says something about Affleck’s ability as a director. Goodman and Arkin do a great job as the make-up artist/producer duo, and provide some comedic relief that compliments the somber tone that the film carries for most of its run time.
In the end, Argo was what I expected it to be. There might not have been that “wow” factor to Argo, and there might have been a few underdeveloped characters, but perhaps that’s what makes it such an awesome and inspiring tale. These were regular people whose lives were on the line, and all parties involved pulled off the improbable. These were fathers, mothers, husbands, friends, who simply wanted to make it home in one piece. I feel this was best exemplified by one of Mendez’s last lines, as O’Donnell tells him that President Carter says he’s a “great American.” Mendez responds, “A great American what?” O’Donnell simply replies, “I dunno, he didn’t say.”