ArgoReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/12/12 13:24:14
"Argo" is based on a true story and it is a good thing that it is because if a screenwriter attempted to spin a narrative including its key ingredients entirely out of whole cloth, there is an excellent chance that it never would have gotten produced in the first place because it would have seemed far too implausible to be believed even for an industry that now bases its product on board games and toy lines. That said, the film does not work because it just happens to be inspired by a wild real-life incident that most people still don't realize actually happened almost 35 years ago. No, the reason that it does work--and work well enough to go down as one of the year's best films--is because it takes a too-good-to-be-true tale and masterfully spins it into an enormously entertaining movie made up of equal parts humor, tension and sheer filmmaking skill. The end result is the kind of movie where everything comes together so beautifully that as soon as it is over, you want to see it again immediately just for the sheer pleasure of experiencing it a second time.The film begins on November 4, 1979, , the day on which Islamist rage over the United States allowing the recently deposed Shah of Iran into the country for medical treatment instead of sending him back in order to face trial for crimes against his people--a process that would have almost certainly end in a death sentence--finally boiled over as militant revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American employees hostage on the presumption that they were spies. In all the chaos, six additional employees managed to slip out of a side exit and eventually make their way to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) to hole up. Needless to say, their lives are in constant danger--they cannot even step outside the house for fear of being discovered and it is only a matter of time before the militants realize that they escaped and begin searching in earnest for them--and the CIA begins formulating plans for a rescue attempt. To this end, they bring in agent and extraction expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to come up with an idea to safely get them out of a country that is under virtual lockdown and where the only point of escape--the airport--will be under especially heavy watch. Eventually, Mendez hits upon a doozy of an idea--he will fly into Tehran and bring them out in plain sight with paperwork suggesting that they are actually a film crew from Canada doing a location scout for an upcoming movie. On the surface, it sounds like the kind of bad idea one might see in a lame movie but as Mendez's boss (Bryan Cranston) puts it while trying to sell it to his superiors, "It's the best bad idea we've got!"
To help facilitate the illusion that an actual movie is being produced in order to strengthen the cover story, Mendez goes to Hollywood and enlists the aid of award-winning makeup artist (and occasional CIA contractor) John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).Together, they sift through piles of screenplays and eventually turn up one for a cut-rate sci-fi epic named "Argo" that includes enough exotic locations to make the possibility of shooting in Iran--even during a time of enormous international strife--seem at least reasonably plausible. From there, they set up production offices, take out ads in "Variety" and even hold a well-publicized script reading in order to quickly establish the film's alleged existence. When that is done, Mendez sets off for Tehran in order to make contact with his targets and drill them on their new cover identities before making his move. While Mendez knows that he is working on a very short timeline, what he doesn't yet realize is that not only have the Iranians finally discovered the disappearance of the six Americans and have begun looking for them (a point made even trickier when it becomes clear that the Taylors' Iranian maid has figured out who their long-standing "guests" really are), the American government has decided to scrap Mendez's plan in order to go through with a more conventional rescue effort. When he gets wind of these developments, Mendez is forced to race against in order to convince his superiors to reinstate his rescue before it is too late.
Although the escape of the six Americans from Iran was a known fact, credit for that was given to Ken Taylor and the details of what really happened were kept under wraps until the mission was declassified by President Clinton in 1997 but even then, the particulars have remained largely under wraps ever since. For a screenwriter looking for subject matter, a story like this is undeniably irresistible but also contains more than its share of problems. For starters, those looking for a straightforward rescue drama could presumably be put off by all the Hollywood-related stuff that dominates the film's middle section. An even bigger obstacle is the unavoidable fact that while the details of how the mission unfolded may not be known to most potential viewers, they (at least the ones old enough to remember the hostage crisis in the first place) will at least presumably know how it all turns out in the end--not necessarily the kind of thing that helps generate suspense amongst viewers. The biggest potential problem is the fact just seems too good to be believable and if not handled in just the right way, it could just bog down into complete implausibility. Screenwriter Chris Terrio manages to sidestep these problems with one of the most expertly constructed screenplays to come around in a long time and one that always feels plausible.
The chief reason for this, I think, is they way in which the script expertly changes gears and approaches throughout in ways that keep viewers on their toes. The first part of the film, chronicling the storming of the embassy and the CIA trying to dream up a way to get the Americans out, is done in a low-key and no-frills manner that may remind some viewers of the likes of "All the President's Men" and other straightforward 1970's-era procedurals as well as the spy stories of John Le Carre in the way that it suggest that most cloak-and-dagger stuff is performed not by dashing agents in the field but by guys in shirts and ties smoking cigarettes in shabby rooms. From there, the story shifts to Hollywood and the mood lightens considerably with a number of hilarious jabs at the industry as the worlds of government and mass industry blend together with surprising ease. Finally, it goes into full-on thriller mode in its final third---although one in which the suspense is generated without the aid of chases, shoot-outs and the like--and pulls things together in such an impressive manner that even those who know exactly how the events play out will find themselves watching from the edges of their seats as they unfold. It may not be the kind of screenwriting that generates lots of awards and attention but this is one of the most impressive examples of the form that I have seen in a while.
The glue that really holds "Argo" together, however, is the direction by Ben Affleck, whose work here is enough to officially proclaim one of the strongest of the new crop of emerging American filmmakers. This shouldn't come as that much of a surprise because his two previous features--""Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town"--were both highly acclaimed films that were also commercial successes to boot but since both of those films were based on best-selling novels, one could possibly argue that the nuts and bolts of the storytelling were already worked out in advance and he just translated it from the page to the screen (which is still a considerable achievement but never mind). Working without that safety net, Affleck nevertheless advances considerably from his earlier achievements and demonstrates himself to be pretty much a born filmmaker. Although it may look straightforward enough, making a film like "Argo" is an exceptionally tricky endeavor because if it ever dips into implausibility for even a brief moment, it can shatter the atmosphere entirely and never recover it. Without succumbing to flashy and overly self-conscious cinematic pyrotechnics, Affleck tells his potentially complicated story in a clear and engrossing manner and also demonstrate considerable chops when it comes to handling both comedy and suspense as well. This isn't just excellent filmmaking from an actor-turned-director--this is excellent filmmaking period.If there is a flaw to "Argo"--and thinking it over, I feel this is more of a benign observation than an outright nitpick--it is regarding Affleck's casting of himself in the lead role. This is not to say that he isn't good in the part--it is one of the better performances of his career, in fact--but I have the sneaky suspicion that the role might have been even more effective if it had been played with someone with a little more gravitas to their persona and without the familiar movie star visage. That extremely minor quibble aside, "Argo" is a major achievement for Affleck as a director--it is a great story told in a thrilling and inventive manner, it is filled with wonderful performances throughout (Alan Arkin is such a hilarious scene-stealer as the producer that I wish there was some way of revoking his Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine" so that he could instead receive it in the name of a film that was far more deserving of his efforts) and it even has a timely feel to it to boot thanks to current events in the region. Best of all, it serves as proof that a film can be intelligently conceived and constructed to tell an adult story while still coming across as a fabulous entertainment to boot. I cannot say how the original "Argo" might have turned out if it had actually been made but this one is a nail-biting and side-splitting delight from start to finish.
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