Bill Clinton probably should have gotten a credit of some kind in Ben Affleck’s latest production. After all, the former president may not have written the true story on which it’s based, but he did declassify it. If not for the action he took in 1997 everything that happens in Argo would still be a secret mission today.
Not that everything that happens in Affleck’s third directorial effort actually happened. The film opens with a breathless recreation of the November 4, 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran in which 52 Americans were taken hostage by revolutionary forces. Everyone knows what happened to them over the following 444 days.
What few people knew for nearly two decades, though, is that six State Department staffers slipped out the back door undetected and made their way to the relative safety of the Canadian ambassador’s home. They hid there for months while the CIA, the State Department, and Jimmy Carter worked on a way to get them home without getting the hostages killed.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA operative and “exfiltration” specialist who concocted the improbable solution. His idea was to fly into Iran by himself and fly out with the six refugees posing as a Canadian film crew scouting Middle Eastern locations for a low budget Star Wars rip-off called Argo. I kept waiting for somebody to say “It’s so crazy it just might work.”
The picture’s an almost one-of-a-kind mix of political thriller and Hollywood satire. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio infuse the factual account supplied by Mendez in his 1999 memoir, The Master of Disguise, with fictional embellishments and tension-cranking plot devices designed to maximize the movie’s goose bump factor.
Chief among these is a story line in which menacing Iranian authorities little by little connect the dots and close in on the fleeing Americans just as freedom comes into view. Which makes for some white knuckle final moments but––minor detail––never actually happened.
Comic relief is provided by the two tinseltown vets Mendez enlists to help pull off the ruse. John Goodman plays John Chambers, a make up artist who won an honorary Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes and had a role in the design of Mr. Spock’s ears on Star Trek.
Alan Arkin’s character, Lester Siegel, is a composite of several legendary personalities including Chambers’ actual partner, effects wizard Bob Sidell, whose credits included E.T. They help give the agent the cover he needs for his story by setting up a production office, arranging for casting calls, holding script readings and even taking out a full page ad in Variety. Both performers do some of the most winning work of their careers.
The acting in Argo is uniformly solid as are the dialogue, the pacing and the dead on period details. This is a picture that’s both well made and well meaning. If it falters to some degree––which I feel it does––it’s ironically because it succumbs in places to the same fondness for Hollywood formula that it parodies.
Hey, I’m as up as anyone for a fact-based tale of intrigue in which the CIA for once is on the side of right and America gets the better of Middle Eastern zealots. But I’m not a big fan of having my buttons pushed and Affleck has turned Mendez’s account into a well oiled big screen suspense machine that pushes them in all the usual places in all the usual ways.
For a story about out-of-the-box thinking and high risk heroism, Argo plays it surprisingly safe.