Plot November 4, 1979. As the US Embassy in post-revolution Tehran falls to a mob of Ayatollah-supporting students, six officers slip out and seek sanctuary with the Canadians. It is up to the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Affleck) to extract them from the country before they are discovered by the Revolutionary Guards. The plan? Create a fake movie, called Argo, and pretend they’re the crew.
Hollywood has always been partial to a good old spy yarn, especially since the genre’s paranoiac, post-Watergate ’70s heyday. It also enjoys taking sideways glances at its own garish reflection (cf. The Player, Wag The Dog, State And Main). So, once the relevant CIA documents became declassified in 1997, revealing the stunning, real reason for a certain Star Wars rip-off once hyped in the pages of Variety never getting greenlit, Argo (working title Escape From Tehran) was surely a cinematic inevitability. It is a great ‘weirder than fiction’ story. One, in fact, that was the subject of a feature in this very magazine almost five years ago. Although, if you’d told us then that its adaptation would star and be directed by Ben Affleck rather than George Clooney (then attached, now only a producer), we’d have been as disbelieving as if you’d told us, pre-declassification, the very facts of this strange case.
To be fair, Affleck’s impressive directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was then already in the can and earning approving nods in press-screening rooms. But neither that nor even his follow-up, The Town — another strong Boston-based crimer — necessarily proved an aptitude for international period-nailing dramas, let alone one, oddly, with a virtually comedic middle act and a difficult climax. Yet here we are, just as Awards Season 2012 is warming up and the glowing late-summer festival reviews have poured in. It is hard to imagine Clooney, either in front of or behind the camera, doing a better job.
The Affleck of Argo couldn’t be further removed from the hunk that cried crocodile tears and jutted his mandible for Michael Bay all those years ago. Perhaps his ultimately embarrassing travails in the BGBG (Before Gone Baby Gone) Era fed usefully into Argo. You can imagine a crooked smile springing up on that square jaw as he pored over newcomer Chris Terrio’s snappy script and clocked the zinger, “You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.”
Such bon mots are largely growled by Alan Arkin as (fictional) fading producer Lester Siegel, recruited by the CIA via amiable make-up genius John Chambers (John Goodman, playing the man who won an Oscar for his work on Planet Of The Apes) to set up the fake space opera that would provide the cover story for the Agency’s Tehran-based exfiltration operation. The Hollywood segment must have appealed to Affleck, and Clooney before him, as much for its outcome as for its breezy, self-deprecatory tone: this was a rare occasion where movies helped save the day for real, and where success went entirely unnoticed.
You can’t begrudge Affleck giving himself the ‘hero’ role of Company man Tony Mendez, because in a sense it’s the most thankless. He’s a hunched, unshaven, bleary-eyed, rumpled-shirted schlub, a man who wakes up in the morning fully clothed, surrounded by empty Chinese food cartons. He has no big, shouty-speech moment, despite his earnest conviction during the early CIA scenes that the “Hollywood option” is the best on offer. He simply moves quietly around the story’s dramedic triangle.
At one corner are the Tinseltown antics of Arkin and Goodman. At another are the CIA office scenes, headed up by Bryan Cranston as Mendez’ boss, who gets all the great lines not spoken by Arkin, including the film’s finest: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir.” And then there is the sharpest vertex, involving the six American consular officers holed up at the Canadian diplomat’s residence, whose journey takes them from narrowly escaping their embassy’s fall to having to swallow Mendez’ plan, which involves each of them pretending to be a department head of a non-existent B pic, who have simply visited the country for a recce.
It’s here that we find the film’s strongest performance, delivered by Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy, half-buried beneath bottle-glass peepers and a thick lip-brush. The CIA has predicted that his older colleague Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) will assume leadership of the group, but in fact it’s McNairy’s previously unassuming Joe Stafford who exhibits the most mettle under these nerve-twanging circumstances. When Mendez lays out his crazy scheme, it is Stafford who balks. In other hands this might have made him the, ‘Oh, just shuddup!’ guy; the twitchy doubter who in an Irwin Allen disaster movie would buy it at around the 70-minute mark. But McNairy and Affleck ensure that during their confrontations, it is with Stafford the sympathies lie. He’s not wrong: the plan was nuts. He is the clearest thinking, most emotionally honest and relatable person here.
Argo, really, is a series of balancing acts. One virtuoso sequence begins with a freaky-ludicrous public casting call, attended by various Hollybozos in sparkly motley. As these blithe, cut-price Threepios, Mings and Flashes launch into a script-reading while champagne flutes tinkle and cameras flash, Affleck intercuts with a chilling scene of trussed American hostages being hustled to a dank basement with sacks over their heads, where they are treated to a mock execution by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, their knees buckling as rifle hammers dully snap down. This could jar horribly, but it works: the sense here is that everyone is putting on a show. The CIA, in putting on a fake movie junket. Hollywood, because, well, that is its very business. And the Khomeini-supporting Iranians, proving to a decadent world that they are not to be taken lightly.
The theme pulls the film neatly together and gives it thrilling impetus when it could so easily have stalled: during the final act. The truth is, there wasn’t a particularly dramatic denouement to the real events, but writer Terrio and Affleck here embellish the facts sensitively and effectively, among other things giving McNairy his glory moment as he hastily has to pitch this so-called “cosmic conflagration”, complete with comic-bookish storyboards, to an itchy-trigger-fingered Iranian soldier. Elsewhere, tried-and-tested tension-ramping techniques, while perhaps over-familiar, are applied judiciously, for example as the terrified sextet has to suffer a tour of Tehran’s bazaar in their flimsy show-people guises (Rory Cochrane’s faux-cinematographer looking through a viewfinder the wrong way) amid an increasingly ugly crowd; or when the irritating rhythms of movie production prove at one point to have potentially fatal consequences.
As Cranston’s character notes, there will be no applause for Mendez if his Escape From Tehran show is a success. But there will be for Affleck. And for a man shaping up to be one of America’s smartest mainstream drama directors, any ovations will be thoroughly deserved.
Verdict An old-school espionage thriller with a movie-biz comedy twist, all the better for being (almost) entirely true. It is to Ben Affleck’s credit that the tension and laughs complement rather than neutralise each other.
For 80% of its running time, this is a super-confident joy of a thriller from Affleck. Opening with a crackerjack embassy storming as American diplomats find themselves besieged in 1979 post-revolutionary Tehran, it then goes off on a mad and hilarious tangent as the most improbable plan is cooked up to get 6 US citizens out who are hiding in the Canadian embassy – a fake sci-fi movie production scouting locations in Iran (amazingly this is all true). This part of the film is just great, c... More
Argo tells a true story of bravery and chivalry in modern day Iran, where one man has a plan to make the fakest movie in history to save six lives. It’s hybrid take on new-age camera movements and old-school angles and techniques gives the movie a timeless feel – something I believe is harder to so than most people think. One example of this shift in generation is when the said six lives – former embassy workers hiding from rebels at an ambassadors house – are forced to hide in the cubby as th... More
Just seen this... can't remember the last time I watched a film and was tense from start to finish... brilliant stuff. Facts aside, its a great film, and might just deserve that Oscar. How Affleck wasn't nominated though... jeez. ... More
Usually when I'm not very excited about a film it turns out to better than I expected. Unfortunatly in this case it wasnt. It was good but only for the last ten minutes. Affleck is good as were alot of the cast and he is clearly a good director but I just wasnt gripped at all, if anything I found large parts of this pretty boring. How this won best film at the oscars I will never know. A solid 3. ... More
I loved this movie. Very entertaining, gripping and intense. More than anything, the editing is incredible too; a perfectly paced film. I wouldn't say it's flawless and, if I could, I'd give it four and a half stars but because I love it so much I'm gonna round it up to five. Yeah, I do that a lot but trust me, it's justified. ... More
RE: "If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus."
Absolutely great film.
Edge of my seat the entire way through and I learnt alot about a situation I was largely ignorant about.
Affleck has now cemented himself as a great director. Good performance by him too. ... More
RE: "If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus."
Why's there so much fuss about Afflek not getting an Oscar nod, It's a good film but, there's nothing here outstanding. What's with the soundrack, there shouldn't be any, just incidental
agree it's an ok movie but there's nothing exceptional here, it's just ok. ... More
An absolutely brilliant film. Even though I knew that the hostages got out safe and sound, I was still on the edge of my seat. Film making at its finest.
One small quip though, Britain and NZ did help in the effort. Naughty, naughty Hollywood *tut tut*. ... More
Exfil. Asked me what that meant last week and I would have told you it was perhaps something to do with science.
Now, however, we know that exfiltration is the process of extracting personnel from enemy territory. In this case, it is with the assistance of a Hollywood producer, an Oscar-winning make-up artist and an entirely fabricated sci-fi film.
Last week, as well as not knowing what an ‘Exfil’ is, I had no idea about the 1979 attack on the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. A mob of A... More
A good little film with a little history lesson thrown in. God knows why Affleck wasn't given a best director nom at the Oscars - without a doubt he should have got one. Great performances all around from the talented cast - especially Alan Arkin who steals every scene he's in. Argo is worth the money and a good night out at the flicks. You won't be disappointed. FOUR STARS ... More
RE: "If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus."
All this kicked off when I was but a mere sprog at the tender age of 1 year old, that's a long time ago folks. So Affleck steps up to the podium with an attempt at an epic, gritty, realistic political rollercoaster which is based on a true story where there wasn't actually that much danger truth be told.
Based on true events and more recently an article about the whole charade. The story involves a small group of Americans trapped in Iran after the US embassy was stormed and take... More
"If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus."
While not as good as Gone Baby Gone or The Town, Ben Affleck's Argo holds its own as an entertaining, intelligently crafted thriller, and John Goodman and Alan Arkin give fine performances that help lighten the mood. ... More
A brilliantly tense and well-directed thriller from Affleck, although during the end credits when Carter refers to Tony Mendez as "one of the greatest CIA agents of all time", I did mentally add "...OF ALL TIME!". ... More
Absolutely brilliant. Gripping, funny, and unexpectedly touching. It reminded me of why i love quality cinema so much.
LIGHT SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Loved the 'Jack Nicholson' cameo, and to nod to Battlestar Galactica filming. The last scene with the Star Wars figures in the background did showcase a slight error - The 'Early Bird' stand with the character names on had every figure in it's correct place apart from ... More
Top film. Really enjoyed this intriguing , and to me, unknown tale. If it was true fact is much more amazing than fiction. That is not to detract from the story as told, it is very well done.
Two other observations.
1. Nothing gives the period feeling more authenticity than having people smoke on planes.
2. Alan Arkin steals every movie he makes. And without seeming to make an effort. ... More
Afflek is one of the most overrated directers working today. The Town was average mediocrity with an sappy ending straight out of chick flick. The film he made before that with his brother was even worse. Such a no mark of a move i cant even remember what it was called.
hanks for the informative non-comment not about Argo. Please do continue to review films you've not seen by talking about other films instead. ... More
Militants storm the US embassy in Tehrain on November 4, 1979, in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah. Although most of the embassy staff are taken as hostages, six evade capture and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. With the escapees’ situation kept secret, the State Department begins to explore options for “exfiltrating” them from Iran. CIA specialist Tony Mendez, brought in for consultation, points out the fundamental weaknesses in all ... More
This is brilliant, a really solid flick from Affleck. I can't remember the last time a film had me on the edge of my seat so much, Affleck cranks the tension to breaking point (especially during the climax) and your heart will be racing by the end. It's really impressive film-making. ... More