Based on one of those many true stories that seems stranger than any fiction, Argo is a highly entertaining thriller that also has a rich vein of comedy running through the whole thing thanks to the absurdity of the central premise.
It’s 1980 and there’s trouble in Iran. Big trouble. Six American members of staff from the U.S. Embassy manage to escape during the storming of the building, but that’s the easy part when compared to figuring out just how to get out of the country. They stay holed up in the home of the Canadian ambassador while people frantically try to come up with plausible escape scenarios. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is a CIA specialist who confuses everyone by coming up with a seemingly ridiculous plan. He wants to create a fake movie and movie production company and then get over to brief the escapees before bringing them home in the guise of Canadian filmmakers.
While it never makes fun of the political situation or, indeed, the very real threat to the six people who wanted to get out of Iran with their lives intact, Argo IS a surprisingly funny film and that’s mainly due to the lengths that everyone has to go to in order to make the cover story believable. To put it bluntly, Argo has a lot of fun at Hollywood’s expense. But don’t let that lightness of touch fool you, there are also constant reminders of the threats endangering the operation at any given time and every sequence seems to pile on a number of details that Mendez and the escapees need to remember to avoid blowing their cover.
Affleck is also the director here as well as the star and he does a great job in both roles, helped no end by a superb script by Chris Terrio (based, in turn, on an article by Joshuah Bearman and the book “The Master Of Disguise” by Tony Mendez). He also provides a great visual aesthetic to the whole thing, apparently gained by shooting on regular film, cutting the frames in half and then blowing those images up 200% to increase graininess (major kudos for that tactic).
The other major factor helping him is the superb cast that he’s assembled. If I start reeling off every name I’ll have to list everyone involved, for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, so let me just cherry-pick a few highlights. Alan Arkin is absolutely wonderful as Lester Siegel, a film producer who helps get the film script that they will work around. John Goodman is equally entertaining as John Chambers, a special effects man who helps Mendez meet up with Siegel and get the ball rolling. Bryan Cranston seems to be unwavering in his greatness lately, Kyle Chandler gets another decent, small, role and the rest of the cast includes Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Michael Parks, Philip Baker Hall and even (very, very briefly) the lovely Adrienne Barbeau.
Viewers might expect their enjoyment of the movie to be hampered by the fact that they know how it all turned out, but that’s not the case. The energy of the movie, the editing and pacing of each scene, seems to help in keeping the tension there even as things move towards that well-known denouement. If you don’t know how the incident was resolved then that’s all the better, but it won’t really detract from your enjoyment of yet another directorial outing from someone who has become, arguably, even more valuable behind the camera than he ever was while just in front of it.
DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK
WRITER: CHRIS TERRIO (BASED ON THE BOOK “THE MASTER OF DISGUISE” BY TONY MENDEZ AND AN ARTICLE BY JOSHUAH BEARMAN)
STARS: BEN AFFLECK, BRYAN CRANSTON, ALAN ARKIN, JOHN GOODMAN, VICTOR GARBER, TATE DONOVAN, CLEA DUVALL, SCOOT MCNAIRY, RORY COCHRANE, CHRISTOPHER DENHAM, KERRY BISHE, KYLE CHANDLER, MICHAEL PARKS, ADRIENNE BARBEAU, PHILIP BAKER HALL, RAFI PITTS
RUNTIME: 120 MINS APPROX