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Ben Affleck's Argo is an engrossing and smart historical thriller that while not perfect has much to celebrate.
Most films based on true stories inevitably suffer from two issues: how much has been embellished, and will audiences embrace a film in which they already know the ending. These were the questions surrounding the historical drama/thriller Argo before its release; and while we all know how things will end, we find ourselves on the edge of our seat, at once cheering for the safe return of Americans that we already know did come home, and booing those responsible for making this world such a dangerous place afterwards.
Our story isn't about character redemption, finding one's soul after a two-hour dramatic exposition, or some other feel-good plot designed to win Oscars: it's about CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, Dogma) following through on his simple promise to rescue six embassy employees who escape the Iranian embassy after an angry mob demanding the return of the Shah overtakes the building. While the resulting capture of dozens of hostages took 444 days to resolve, crushing Jimmy Carter's presidency, it's the recently declassified rescue story which emphatically stands front and center. The result is an emotionally-charged, well-built film about six desperate people and the CIA guy charged with bringing them home.
As the CIA learns that they are hold up at the Canadian Ambassador's home, Mendez and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad) are called in by the State Department to brainstorm ideas for a rescue operation. They entertain the unlikely (assume the identities of western teachers) and the ridiculous (issue them bikes to ride 300 miles to the border) while the Revolutionary Guard learn of their escape and begin a massive manhunt. Charged with extricating them, Mendez takes a bold risk: assume the role of a Canadian movie crew who are producing the space film Argo and are currently scoping locations throughout the Middle East. But he needs a little help to give the fake film some credibility, and enlists the services of Hollywood director Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin, Gross Pointe Blank) and makeup specialist John Chambers (John Goodman, the Big Lebowski) to cast, fund, and greenlight the picture. With seemingly the entire city looking for them, Mendez arrives in Tehran but soon learns that The White House has abandoned their plan. With members of the Revolution hot on their trail, Mendez must ether follow orders or fulfill his promise to the Americans who have run out of options.
Affleck has a director's eye, creating scenes that are both compact but well-choreographed, building tension from almost the first scene, and motivating his cast to keep that anxiety high for the sake of the story. This isn't his first directorial BBQ (2010's The Town), but Affleck ups the ante here, portraying the Americans as scared but motivated prisoners of a country that has gone completely insane. There's no hero element here, no wild shoot outs or even the cliched line that can sometimes define a film like this. You feel the tension, empathize with the Americans and absolutely despise the Iranians. It's this sort of storytelling by newcomers Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman that creates such a believable set up with Affleck providing the environment. But to say Argo is a perfect film is going a bit too far. The normally electric Victor Garber (Alias) is relegated to muttering a few lines as the Canadian Ambassador, and the story's chase ending is loosely based on what really happened, leading some to wonder why Affleck felt he needed to spice things up when his efforts to that point had been so masterful. But, there is a lot to like about Argo, and I expect Affleck to receive an Oscar nod for Best Director.
Argo is not a once-in-a-lifetime-in-your-face film, but is instead a well-written story about promises made, turning a far-fetched CIA plot into believable spycraft and committed by people who lived difficult and sometimes dangerous lives. But it's also a window into our own time, where the rules of humanity don't seem to apply in certain places of the world, and when decades of mistrust of American policies in Iran exploded into a violence that seems strangely familiar today. A scene near the end, in which Mendez and the Americans are being interrogated by actor Farshad Farahat as a Guardsman, tells you everything you need to know about people's views of the US at that time. Seems like much hasn't changed, as if Argo represented the kickoff for the insane times in which we live. In that and many other ways, consider Argo a success. Argo is rated R for language and violence and has a runtime of 120 minutes.
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