To borrow the tagline of Argo, the movie may have been fake -- but the mission was real. The Ben Affleck-directed film, based on the effort to rescue six Americans stranded in Iran after radicals took over the U.S. Embassy in 1979, is as real as a fantastic film can get.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA operative charged with bringing those half dozen U.S. citizens home. After a series of ideas is floated and none fails to stick, Mendez’s team is set on making the “Hollywood” option work. The journey to and through that meeting of Tinseltown and history is captured impeccably in Argo.
In 1979, sci-fi movies are huge. Star Wars had become one of the most popular films of all time, and looking for locales to film where the more exotic is better to reflect the dozens of movies that sought to capitalize on George Lucas’ success seemed real enough.
Mendez works with two Hollywood archetypes in John Goodman and Alan Arkin who make the “scouting trip” to Iran by the fictional filmmaking team of Argo as real as a heart attack -- with the next great sci-fi thriller, supposedly -- and Mendez has his cover for getting our citizens out of harm’s way.
The promise Affleck showed as a director in Gone Baby Gone and and with the pure awesomeness that was The Town has come to full fruition in Argo. The helmer effortlessly moves between ever-building suspense and laugh-out-loud humor (particularly in the Hollywood scenes). He never exploits the situation either, and instead lets the scene and the actors speak the truth.
What amazes the most is how impossible it is to describe the nail-biting, grab-the-armrest tension that permeates Argo. How Affleck manages to do that is astounding. There aren’t the usual suspects that accompany tension in a film. He does it subtly and through the fact that he gives his audience enough credit to know how high the stakes are for his characters. Knowing that fact, the viewer cannot exhale until the hostage crisis is resolved.
Argo is also impeccable in capturing the time. The film begins with a montage of narrated images taking us through the history of Iran-United States relations. It is in that context that when the first “official” scene of the film commences (when the students take over the Embassy), one can not only understand their frustration, but where in the geo-political timeline our story sits.
Not only does Affleck the director produce a work that is worthy of Oscar attention, but he does as the lead actor as well. And the entire cast matches that effort from top to bottom. Arkin and Goodman bring their Hollywood heavies to life in a way that provides the means for the mission, but also the humor and levity needed of a film that is so dense with tension. Meanwhile, back at the CIA, Bryan Cranston excels as Mendez’s boss who goes to bat for him on one or more occasions because of his belief that this crazy plan will work.
Our Argo review would be completely remiss not to mention the taut script by Chris Terrio. It hits all the right beats and never lets the foot off the gas, both in dramatic dialogue, action, tension and humor.
The Academy must be put on notice: You have your first Best Picture contender of the fall.