|John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Ben Affleck in Argo|
**** out of ****
Argo is a great film with intensity reminiscent of true-story international thrillers like The Killing Fields. It also has the hilarity of absurd fictional films like Wag the Dog. Although in the case of this film, the “showbiz to the rescue” aspect of the story is true.
Argo is the true story of a now-declassified CIA mission, which successfully rescued six American diplomats living in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of the late seventies when the US embassy was raided. An operative named Tony Mendez played by Ben Affleck, comes up with a strange plan to find the diplomats and disguise them as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction film called Argo which requires an exotic desert setting. Once he’s trained them on their false identities and professions, the next step is to get them on a plane home.
The light-hearted and humorous side to this film revolves around the filmmakers who assemble the fake movie production. The always-likeable John Goodman plays John Chambers, the classic make-up artist who was responsible for the work in the Planet of the Apes films (It turns out he had done disguise work for the CIA prior to this operation) and Alan Arkin as Lester Seigle, a film producer. The banter that is the result of their wit and screen presence is priceless especially to a movie geek like myself.
Affleck has built a very redeeming reputation as a director and has now jumped to a new level in that profession with a very daring project. He’s taken on sensitive subject matter that people still remember well and could easily be subject to criticism. He’s also doing a period film, with domestic and abroad settings, which requires a lot of selective props, locations, wardrobe, hair-dues, and special effects. Above all, this is the second of his directorial efforts that he has also starred in. It’s a lot of work and it’s really well done.
The rest of the cast is notable with Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s CIA supervisor and Victor Garber as the Canadian Ambassador who was hiding the American diplomats. The Diplomats are wonderfully played by Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishé, Christopher Denham and Dazed and Confused scene-stealer Rory Cochran who doesn’t do much talking in this movie but still has a talent for looking like he belongs in the seventies.
Affleck has made a scary, intense, entertaining, informative and moving film with nostalgia and cinematographic stylization, which all balances with the amazing story being told. I was captivated for the entire film even though I was often skeptical of its more intense moments being true.
This is the kind of story that makes a great movie. While it is a miracle that the operation worked, it was a relatively small success in the grand scheme of things. When these six people were being rescued, fifty-two US hostages were being held and were not released for over a year. Making a film about their story would be honorable but probably not an easy one to watch. Schindler’s List, for example isn’t as much about the horror of the holocaust as it is about a group of people who survived it. Audiences like personal stories of hope against despairing horrific obstacles and Argo certainly delivers a story of that kind.