Argo marks Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature – and the second time he has starred in his own film. The tale is a true one this time around, transporting us back to the eerily-familiar era of the late 1970s/early 1980s, when Iran was in the midst of a tumultuous revolution. The Shah (King) had been ousted from power and took refuge in America; under the leadership of religious cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian revolutionaries protested the Shah’s escape by storming the U.S. Embassy in Iran, taking fifty-two American citizens hostage.
However, six Americans escaped the embassy siege and found refuge with a Canadian diplomat. With their identities slowly but surely being pieced together by the revolutionary guard, “The Six” had one hope: CIA exfil (exfiltration) wiz Tony Mendez (Affleck). Tony’s big idea? Create a fake Canadian sci-fi film scouting locations in Tehran, Iran, and sneak The Six out in plain sight. But as usual, the plan doesn’t go quite as smoothly as Mendez had hoped.
Argo is another demonstration of Ben Affleck’s skill as both a director and an all-around quality cinematic storyteller. He takes what is ostensibly a small sliver of a much larger story (the Iran hostage crisis) and molds it into a piece of top-notch genre entertainment that (like his other films) never overextends itself or deviates from its main focus, which is to entertain. And entertain it does.
From the very first frame, Argo is a tense and captivating ride – despite the fact that we inevitably know the ending before it even begins. The imagery of a turbulent 1970s/80s Middle East world (part stock footage, part staged scenes) is so unsettlingly similar to what we see in these days and times that it has a visceral resonance that most films only dream of inspiring. Writer Chris Terrio fills in the political history (drawn from Joshuah Bearman’s article “Escape from Tehran”) with a terse thrill ride populated by interesting and lively characters, sharp dialogue, and even a nice dose of witty gallows humor. The success of Affleck’s films comes from the fact that the director himself knows what they are – basic genre entertainment – and instead of falling into political sermon or social commentary, both writer and director wisely opt to simply focus on the entertainment factor with laser-like intensity.
A lot of that entertainment comes from the performances. Affleck manages to lead without hogging the stage, playing Tony as a sharp but reserved hero type who has just enough subtly-layered complexities to keep us interested in him, without those points of interest becoming distractions or loose threads. This balancing act works well for just about every character in the film; they’re more than hollow stock character stereotypes (the Iranian antagonists serve that function), but their development and depth are handled deftly enough as to not interfere with the tight and steady pace of the movie.
The quality cast Affleck surrounds himself with are the reason that the characters function and balance so well. “The Six” could’ve been empty MacGuffins, but a smart collection of familiar-face actors – Christopher Denham (Sound of My Voice), Clea DuVall (Zodiac), Tate Donovan (Damages), Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused), Kerry Bishé (Red State) – manage to turn each member of the imperiled half dozen into someone worth caring about. Scoot McNairy (Monsters, Killing Them Softly) makes a significant impression as Joe Stafford, the voice of the group who is at odds with Tony’s crazy plan.
John Goodman and Alan Arkin show up to chew scenery in the best possible way, playing famous Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel (respectively) – the men who front Tony’s fake movie. Some of the most humorous scenes in the film belong to Goodman and Arkin, and a foul-mouthed line they coin is likely to blast off into the pop-culture zeitgeist. The pair also serve up a lot of the Hollywood meta-humour in the film, which Affleck gives brief-but-rewarding winks to in a variety of clever ways.
Even the third-tier players (the various government men pulling the strings of Tony’s operation) are brought to vivid life by some accomplished actors, including Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Victor Garber (Alias), Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Zeljko Ivanek (Bourne Legacy), Titus Welliver (Lost), Keith Szarabajka (The Dark Knight) and Richard Kind (Luck). There’s even a hilarious cameo from iconic faces Bob Gunton and Phillip Baker Hall. In short, Argo is a cinema trivia lover’s dream, and Affleck gets the benefit of having his film (and Terrio’s script) held up at all ends by a skilled ensemble.
For fans of the thriller genre (political or not) Argo is a must-see, and is an all-around quality time at the movies for the mature crowd. The film fulfills its promise of being worthwhile genre entertainment (no more, no less), and gets boosted by a good cast, good script, and the luck of timing.
Would it be as captivating and nerve-wracking to watch if we didn’t live in a time where American embassies are once again under attack? Or a time in which we’ve witnessed real extremists executing people in Web videos? Probably not. But this is the time we live in, and by simply holding up this example, Affleck successfully uses history to tap into very real fears (both personal and political) about what may come tomorrow.
As a director, he’s three for three, by my count.
Argo is now playing in theaters. It is Rated R for language and some violent images.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out the Argo episode of the SR Underground podcast.