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Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature film as director tells the now-declassified tale of the CIA’s successful attempt to save the six US Embassy workers not taken hostage in the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. These six people managed to escape just as the embassy was stormed by angry protestors demanding the return of the Shah of Iran. Hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house, they run the risk of discovery and capture daily. The danger increases as the fugitives’ identities are being pieced together from shredded documents retrieved from the Embassy after it was compromised. The CIA mission, led by Tony Mendez (Affleck) conjures up a tale stranger than fiction: The six will claim to be scouting locations for a movie called Argo and, with Mendez’s help, will secure the necessary papers to fly out of Iran.
Argo immediately evokes a 70’s movie feel, with the Warner Bros. logo reverting to its old white W on black circle. Affleck, both as performer and helmer, coasts on that vibe, using cin-togger Rodrigo Prieto, editor William Goldenberg and costume designer Jacqueline West as effective co-conspirators. Affleck’s Mendez has the Serpico look, and the film’s construction and design aim for the films of Alan J. Pakula. Affleck is no Pakula, but Argo is easily his best work both behind and in front of the camera. He successfully juggles the back and forth intercutting of events in Iran and Virginia, and the escape sequence is a superbly rendered example of near-excruciating suspense. To pull that off when the audience already knows the outcome takes skill, and Affleck deserves credit and praise for it.
Also worthy of praise are a bevy of actors relishing the dialogue assigned them by screenwriter Chris Terrio. Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston snatch the picture from their director whenever they’re onscreen. Argo casts Goodman and Arkin as the Hollywood players responsible for creating the ruse that brings credibility to Mendez’s plan. Mendez enlists producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) and Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (Goodman) to dupe Hollywood into thinking the Argo film is a real production. They select Argo’s screenplay because it’s science fiction and therefore requires a landscape that mimics a distant planet. Iran fits the bill perfectly. “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” Siegel tells Mendez, and thanks to Star Wars, everybody and their mother is making a knock-off of Lucas’ film.
At CIA headquarters, Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell brings a scary intensity and genuine comic timing to his role as Mendez’s boss. The roundtable meeting where the agents discuss potential plans of action (all of which Mendez casually shoots down) would be less hilarious if it weren’t so damn plausible. As crazy as the Argo plan is, it’s the best idea anyone can come up with in a short period of time. Cranston, looking like Walter White’s dad in his 70's get-up, is perfectly cast; he’s even able to sell the tired old cliché of pulling the agent off the job when something goes wrong.
The fugitives are not as memorable as the movie makers and the government shakers, but Argo gives them enough screen time to fully invest the audience in their plight. Each of the actors (Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy) craft identities and have at least one very good scene of worry, woe or heroics. Victor Garber plays the Canadian ambassador who hides them and, after the mission is complete, reaps the benefit of all the praise for its success. The TIFF audience cheered when O’Donnell tells Mendez that, for the safety of the other hostages, Canada will receive full credit for the rescue. “If we wanted applause,” O’Donnell tells him, “we would have joined the circus.” “I thought this was the circus,” Mendez retorts.
The hostage crisis lasted 444 days, all of which I remember from my youth. Argo provides the requisite end-of-movie credits details about the outcome, as well as some words from former President Jimmy Carter. Argo also provides a great entertainment, one that should be a hit with regular audiences and quite possibly the Academy. I can see this winning the Audience award here, though I have never been successful at picking the correct movie. The third time’s the charm for director Affleck—this is a damn good movie.
(Ben Affleck was present at the screening, and gave his best film a very funny introduction.)