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Hollywood has always loved a reason to pat itself on the back, and boy does Argo give ample reason to do so. It’s a tale of international terror, bravery and storytelling at its finest – made all the more substantive by the fact that it derives from actual events.
Ben Affleck directs Argo, his third at-bat behind the camera following Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and also stars as Tony Mendez. It’s 1979, and Mendez, a CIA “extractor” brought in after six Americans (Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé) managed to flee the United States embassy in Iran and hide out in the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) residence after an infamous Tehrani militant group stormed the building demanding the return of the deposed Shah of Iran. This opening sequence, shot by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, is a compelling yet understated example of measured moviemaking, and is indicative of what makes Argo work as well as it does.
Namely, it’s the considerable lack of hyperbole and self-congratulation to be found in Argo, written by Chris Terrio in a crystalline script adapted from Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise” as well as a 2007 Wired magazine article entitled “The Great Escape,” by Joshuah Bearman. In order to extricate the sextet without violating Canada’s diplomatic status, Mendez concocted a scheme so far-fetched it belongs in a movie. In fact, it came from Hollywood: with the help of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, loosening his Borscht belt with every line) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), an honorary Oscar winner for Planet of the Apes, Mendez fabricated a fake movie for which the de facto captives would assume alter egos as crew. Picking up a rejected sci-fi script called “Argo” from a slush pile, Mendez headed to Iran to train the six people to pretend to be Canadian members of the film industry.
The film is tense but taut; Terrio has provided plenty of space for humor to make Argo accessible to everyone, even those who know nothing of foreign affairs, politics, or filmmaking. He also provides plenty of important details to ensure reality, like the growing restlessness the six Americans felt after months of house arrest. And while the film falters when leaving the events in Iran for too long (less is really more for a backstory about Mendez’s fractured relationship with his son and ex-wife), Affleck deserves credit for striking a tonal balance between suspense and humor – the film’s final, fictionalized escape sequence packs plenty of adrenaline even if the outcome is known. (The mission was declassified during President Clinton’s second term.) Additionally, his ability to reproduce period detail from Donna J. Anderson and Joe Matke’s hair design to Jacqueline West’s costumes is uncanny without being overly showy.
Affleck’s on-screen work is fine, if undistinguished; his Mendez is really just the entry point to a slew of scenery chewing at its greatest. Arkin and Goodman are joined by a third one of filmdom’s greatest character actors, the currently ubiquitous Bryan Cranston, as Mendez's boss, Jack O’Donnell, and all three show how to perfectly under-act a role. But the real star of the impressively reined-in Argo is the very idea of the Hollywood dream. It’s an earnest look at the notion of Hollywood as the ultimate helper. In a town where the movies actually receive hero worship, it’s proof positive that sometimes, film can indeed save.