“Not Without My Film Crew”
Grade: A- (SEE IT)
SO MANY FILMS purport to be “based on a true story” that the credit is now a cliché, a weak handshake at the start of a film that says: what you’re about to see is quote-unquote “true.” “Argo,” which slaps this line onto its opening credits as well, is the only political thriller in recent memory to so seamlessly mesh the categories of historical veracity and Hollywood bogus, and that’s because “Argo” is the perfect mixture of fact and fiction, Middle Eastern unrest and California corniness. Who would ever believe that the U.S. government actually attempted to solve the hostage crisis of the Carter administration by having its stranded citizens impersonate a Canadian film crew out scouting Iran? They’re told to act like they’re making some “Barbarella”-esque sci-fi flick while, in actuality, they’re outrunning the watchful eye of the Ayatollah Khomeini? Yet “Argo” calls forth another cliché: sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
With “Argo,” director Ben Affleck has left his native Boston – the setting for his first two crime films, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” – for the international stage, specifically the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. The film opens on a frenetic high point with Islamic militants storming the American Embassy in Tehran. We watch nervously as American staffers scramble to incinerate classified documents and prepare for their inevitable capture. Six staffers, however, manage to slip away and take refuge in the Canadian embassy, overseen by Victor Garber as Ambassador Ken Taylor.
Soon after, damage control arrives in the form of Tony Mendez, a CIA expert in what’s known as “ex-filtration” (or getting out) and played by a Wookie’d Affleck himself in a shag haircut and beard. As a period piece, “Argo” is meticulously vintage: soundtrack aside, it’s crammed with big frame glasses, Farah Fawcett hair, and butterfly collars. Cigarette smoking is omnipresent, even on airplanes; so, too, is political conflict as U.S.-Iran relations sour fast and the prisoners’ hope for amnesty darkens. Mendez’s superior is Jack O’Donnell (Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston in his first memorable film role) who doubts that Tony can pull it off, and for good reason: Tehran is a terrifying place with political dissidents hanging from construction cranes and irate merchants in the marketplace who threaten to ruin Mendez’s mission.
Back at home, the side-story set in Tinseltown is bright, funny, and serves to balance the intensities of the Tehran standoff. As makeup artist John Chambers, there’s John Goodman alongside producer Lester Siegel (a typically cranky and jog-suited Alan Arkin). Arkin, sharing a tender moment with Affleck before he’s Iran-bound, hears that the CIA man is estranged from his wife and ten-year-old son; will Mendez achieve his own form of homecoming? His scenes with Goodman define comic relief; take, for example, Mendez’s first visit to Chambers’ movie trailer where he’s told: “Target audiences will hate it.” “Who are they?” asks Affleck. Goodman replies drolly: “People with eyes.”
Two other aspects of “Argo” make the plot, its excellent pacing, and nerve-wracking energy truly stick. First, there’s the assembly of actors that Affleck cast as the six US staffers; each convey a genuine sense of purpose and panic. Actors-turned-directors are especially attuned to good performers – Robert Redford and Sean Penn leap to mind – and Affleck is no exception. His own performance is a bit of a puzzle, however; he’s often somber and understated, but he may have deliberately wanted his supporting cast, especially upstagers like Goodman and Arkin to take control. Second, Affleck is aided by a pulse-quickening script for which we not only have Bill Clinton to thank – the President declassified the mission’s papers in the Nineties – but more importantly, Chris Terrio who based “Argo” on Mendez’s own account, “The Master of Disguise,” and a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman called “The Great Escape.” Terrifically tense and taut, “Argo” is not just Affleck’s best directorial effort to date but one of 2012’s very best. Make it your mission to see it.