Argo is one of those finely crafted movies that reassure you that great films with wit and substance in abundance are still being made (no matter what the latest Transformers movie may suggest).
Directed by rising directorial talent Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), who also stars in the movie as Tony Mendez, a C. I. A. “exfiltration” agent charged with spiriting six Americans out of Tehran in the aftermath of the US Embassy storming by Iranian Revolutionaries in 1979, Argo tells a ripping yarn that is part ballsy spy caper, and part Hollywood satire.
These two normally disparate elements come together perfectly to recount how a group of six Americans, who are in a separate building in the embassy compound with street access and are thus able to escape the raging mobs that overwhelm their colleagues, make it home with the help of Mendez, and a group of trusted Hollywood insiders.
While the story may seem far-fetched, it is for the most part true (with of course the usual Hollywood flourishes and liberal use of dramatic license added into the mix).
It centres on an elaborate ruse concocted by Mendez, who in the face of suggestions that the group, sheltering in the home of the Canadian Ambassador, simply cycle their way to the Turkish border over 300km away, decides there must be a better way.
Experienced in getting all manner of people secretly and cleanly out of difficult situations – he moved many of the Shah’s people out of Iran post revolution – his moment of inspiration comes on the phone one night while talking with his far away son as they watch “Planet of the Apes” together.
Dispensing with covers for the six trapped Americans as aid workers or teachers (problematic for a variety of reasons), he comes up with the idea of having them pose as members of a Canadian film crew prepping for the shooting of a sci-fi flick with a Middle Eastern setting.
While his far-fetched idea is initially treated with a great deal of scepticism by the powers-that-be, he is given the go-ahead by his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) to go to Hollywood and begin elaborate preparations to make a fake film look as real as possible.
Arriving in L.A., Mendez teams up with Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman), a talented Hollywood prosthetics expert and trusted C. I. A. operative who has a devastating line in hilarious one liners that provide the few laugh out loud funny moments that this film permits itself.
Try this particularly witty exchange on for size:
John Chambers: [after telling him his plan to get the hostages out] Let me get this straight, you want to come to Hollywood, make a fake movie, and do nothing?
Tony Mendez: That’s right.
John Chambers: [Smiles] You’ll fit right in!
But most of the film eschews humour in favour of tense edge-of-your-seat drama which makes sense since it covers a serious period in American history.
The lives of six people hung in the balance as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, using children to piece together the shredded images of all the embassy’s staff (meaning sooner rather than later they would realise they were missing six hostages) got closer to tracking them down, and undoubtedly taking vengeance on those who had humiliated them.
But movie making, the studios’ bottom lines and actors’ egos aside, often isn’t, and Affleck wisely uses the scenes in Hollywood, which affectionately send up the gentle insanities of preparing to make a film, even a fake one, to leaven what is essentially the story of a deadly serious life-and-death game of geopolitical poker with the new Iranian regime.
And he strikes the perfect balance.
From the opening brief but information-packed history of Iran that sets the scene for the dramatic events to follow through to the just-in-the-nick-of-time escape of the six Americans via a Swissair flight, the film rarely puts a foot wrong.
It conveys, with chilling authenticity (or again, as much as Hollywood ever allows itself in these types of movies) the real fear of the six that they would be found out, and their dramatic escape 80 or so days earlier would be for nothing.
And it underscores how real the risks for everyone involved while still permitting a sly chuckle at the sheer absurdity of a situation which called for so contrived a ruse.
It is a tribute to Affleck’s deft but sure directorial touch and the uniformly superb performances by the raft of great acting talents assembled that the surreal nature of the rescue plan – the movie even came with it’s own unofficial tagline “Argo fuck yourself!” which was coined by Lester Siegel who declares “If I am going to make a fake film, then it will be fake hit!” – never overshadows its role as a potential saviour for the trapped Americans.
Argo is enriching, entertaining, and far less jingoistic than I expected – though the British, New Zealanders are given short shrift and the Canadians aren’t accorded as much credit as they deserve – and is, I think, one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.
* If you’re interested in a look at how accurate Argo was in its depiction of events, this article is worth checking out.