Argo is a rousing, nail-biting throwback to the best of seventies cinema: timely, topical, and tense. It begins with Islamic protesters burning American flags and besieging the U.S. embassy. No, this isn’t a study of current events in Syria or Libya. Argo celebrates spies and the far-fetched plans necessary to get State department employees out of Iran circa 1979. A religious and political revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini had deposed the hated Shah of Iran. When the United States harbored the Shah (as a long time ally), many Iranians were outraged. Yet when Islamic students and militants took hostages inside the American embassy, six diplomats escaped, seeking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home. The specter of capture, torture, and death is palpable throughout this taut, historical thriller. But director Ben Affleck balances the tension with broad humor aimed at Hollywood’s efforts to cash in on the latest craze. Argo merges a sharp satire of Star Wars-era studio politics with a riveting caper film. It is enormously entertaining.
Given the movie industry’s penchant for celebrating itself, Argo is being hailed as a serious Oscar contender. Academy voters will undoubtedly appreciate Affleck’s knowing nods to Warner Brothers’ groovy old logo and scenes in the unofficial studio commissary, the Smokehouse. It is a movie about making a movie, with the (actual) director teaching (onscreen) diplomats how to act like a film crew. But it is far more than a film about filmmaking. Argo is a bracing salute to chutzpah and international cooperation (Hooray for Canada!). I will call it a ripping yarn, but stop short of Best Picture.
Based upon the accounts of C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez, Argo seems almost too absurd to be believed. The brilliant script by Chris Terrio juxtaposes comedic riffs from weary Hollywood producers with State department situation rooms of equally humorous extremes. It exploits all the communication hurdles inherent before cell phones.
Kudos should also be extended to the outstanding ensemble. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame) cuts through the government bureaucracy to support Mendez’s cover story—scouting for film locations in Iran. John Goodman and Alan Arkin relish the opportunity to send up the studio system as producers of the fake movie, Argo. And the lesser-known actors cast as the trapped diplomats convey a convincing sense of dread.
The only misstep in director Ben Affleck’s casting is Ben Affleck. He mostly broods throughout the picture. But given the paucity of prime roles for Hispanic actors, I would have liked to see Tony Mendez’s ethnic heritage factored into casting. Perhaps Affleck cast himself as the hero as a cost saving measure to get the movie made. Hollywood rarely produces movies so smart, efficient, and satisfying.
I grew up on espionage tales like Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the Jackal, and The Odessa File. Spies used to be cool (because our enemies were seemingly clearer). Argo makes the Central Intelligence Agency look heroic. It offers moments of unabashed patriotism. Malaise hung over America during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The ongoing news coverage spawned ABC’s Nightline. Since the full details of the brash escape plan were declassified twenty years afterwards, the need for feel-good films about government agencies remains. Frankly, Argo snapped me back to an even older Hollywood classic about letters of transit. As in Casablanca, the power of a visa to open doors and save lives resounds. While we’re conditioned to equate movie heroism with guns drawn and bullets flying, the best spy stories turn upon creativity and cool. As Bogart undercut the Nazis, so Affleck and company outsmart Islamist revolutionaries. Audiences haven’t experienced such a satisfying conclusion in a long, long time.