It was a story for the history books and tailor made for Hollywood, but no one could tell it for years. The world knew back in 1979 that six workers at the US embassy in Iran were able to escape after their building was overtaken by rioters who kidnapped and ransomed everyone else unlucky to remain in the building. Finding temporary refuge at the Canadian embassy, the United States government had no idea how to safely get their workers out of a country that wanted them dead or captured. Naturally, they came up with a shell game so convoluted that only a true tinseltown charlatan would have been able to sell it.
Tony Mendez wasn’t a big time LA player, but rather the best extraction expert in the CIA. In Argo, the exciting and fast paced third feature for actor Ben Affleck as a director, a silver screen scam job comes to actual theatres with the filmmaker starring as Mendez, whose best plan to rescue the trapped diplomats comes in the form of bringing them together as a fake movie crew under the guise of being location scouts for a big budget sci-fi epic.
Affleck doesn’t get to stretch his acting muscles too far in the leading role, instead leaving the heavy lifting to his more than capable supporting cast. The people who helped Mendez are for more interesting, anyway, than the stoic family man who had the most to lose, and to his credit Affleck fully realizes this, only giving Mendez the spotlight when he has to personally answer to someone or when his actions have unintended consequences. He’s the guide through this world and the on screen narrator orchestrating everything, but this is a character that isn’t anything more than a simple, humanized G-man. Affleck does a great job, but his work behind the camera resonates far more strongly than his performance.
His main pointmen back in Los Angeles are producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), the former of which hasn’t had a box office success in ages and who doesn’t really seem to care all that much that his career is in the crapper, while the latter has actually had some experience helping out the government. These are the people tasked with pulling together everything needed to make a credible looking production out of something that’s never going to exist in case the Iranian authorities question Mendez’s real identity or if he gets stopped escorting his charges out of the country. Goodman and Arkin are the most delightful performers in a film full of strong players, but the cynical and distant nature of their jobs never undercuts their desire to help in a mission neither knows they will get a lick of credit for.
While it all get hashed out back home, on the ground in Tehran, Mendez has to deal with a bunch of spoon fed government officials that have gone stir crazy waiting to get out of their guest’s house. Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) simply can’t keep house them much longer than he already has (over 40 days) and suspicion is coming down on him hard from all sides. At the same time, a great deal of the six remaining Americans have no faith in Mendez’s plans despite being too shell shocked still to come up with any better ideas.
Mendez’s dealings with the hostages are where the movie feels the most pat and artificial, oddly enough. It’s not that the performances are distracting or that it’s unbelievable, but the dialogue suggests a spinning of the wheels. Granted, no one other than Mendez (who wrote a book on the subject, himself) and those who were there knows exactly word for word what was said in those conversations, but the dialogue from Chris Terrio’s screenplay feels a bit too “on the nose at times.” After already watching Mendez struggle with getting his superiors to accept his outlandish sounding proposal (including a sympathetic liaison played by Bryan Cranston and an oblivious Chief of Staff played by Kyle Chandler, both of whom are delightful, but in need of more screen time), the audience doesn’t need to watch even more people tell him just how crazy his plan is. We all pretty much got that on the first go around.
Still, Affleck reasserts himself as someone capable of crafting sprawling narratives with a great knack for creating tension out of quiet, seemingly innocuous moments. Following his similar work in Gone Baby Gone and The Town – both of which are still superior to this – Affleck has becomes very close to being considered an auteurist here. He shoots in a no-bullshit style that only occasionally allows the musical score to swell or the editor to make something look chaotic. He often tends to let things play out as they normally would, and here at the film’s conclusion he wrings every bit of tension that he can while people literally look over story boards while others are trapped in an awkward pre-cellular phone dilemma where they can’t simply cross a lot to answer a phone call.
On a screenwriting level, the film’s final third seems a bit outlandish and it’s hard not to think that the end of Argo doesn’t depict exactly how everything went down, but Affleck has fun staging these sequences for full cathartic effect. On a purely metatextual level, too, Affleck has to know exactly what he’s doing by amping up the finale. He knows his film, despite the Hollywood trappings, was always one about paperwork and bureaucracy to begin with. In a way, he gives the real Mendez the tongue-in-cheek fake film that he was sent to never make in the first place.
The also perceived “Canadian controversy” around the film not truly showing the work put in by Canadian minister Ken Taylor doesn’t hold much weight. The film isn’t Taylor’s story, and the focus is squarely on Mendez and the shell game put into play. The film does a fine job of showing just how far Taylor could go along with the charade, and Garber does a great job of playing the soft-spoken man as someone who wants the best ending for all involved and not as someone who sneers that he wants the people he is protecting gone at any cost. For those who want to poke holes in the film’s depiction of Canadiana, I again point to the entire final third of the film and ask them if they still take the film as a pure face value account of any history, American or Canadian.
Part of why Argo works so well is because it’s just so entertaining to watch. It’s the type of period piece actioner that would only have been made in the 70s or 80s, but made by Affleck today to look exactly like the time period it was made in on both aesthetic and technical levels. It’s grainy, oddly coloured, and everyone smokes like they’ll never die from it, and that seems to be the point. Affleck has created a real film about a fake movie that gives reverential treatment to the decade when the fraud would have taken place. It doesn’t sound like an easy feat to pull off, but he makes it all work splendidly, leaving the audience to wonder what his next directorial effort will end up becoming.