And if the movie puts the filmmakers in the role of hero, then that’s even better.
So no wonder everyone — on both coasts — is going gaga over Argo, Ben Affleck’s excellent new film about a rescue mission disguised as a movie-location-scouting mission.
True story: In 1979, during the early days of the Iran hostage crisis, a group of six American officials escaped the U.S. embassy and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador. But they couldn’t stay there forever; if they were found by the Iranians, they’d be executed in the street.
Enter Tony Mendez (played in the film by Affleck himself), a CIA operative who comes up with the hair-brained idea to “send in a Moses” who will dupe the Iranians into thinking he and the other Americans are part of a Canadian movie production crew. That way, he’ll not only extricate the six and bring them home, he’ll be able to do it partly with the Iranians’ cooperation.
Will it work? Who knows. But it’s just crazy enough that it might. And besides, the CIA has run out of plausible schemes. This is the best bad idea they’ve got.
He begins the film in clever fashion, using storyboards to set the scene. Then he moves to the real action, using handheld camerawork and quick-cut editing to ratchet up the suspense during the scene where the embassy is being overrun by a mob of Iranians and those on the inside are scrambling to shred and/or destroy any and all paperwork before they leave the building.
The Iran-set scenes don’t get any easier to watch, particularly toward the end when the seven Americans are making their way through the airport. And the scenes where Bryan Cranston and his team (including everywhere-man Chris Messina) are back in Washington pulling the strings to get everyone on board give the impression that even though lives were on the line, folks really were flying by the seats of their pants the whole time.
We may know the mission was a success, but the film still has us on the edge of our seats.
It’s worth noting that Argo is not without its humor. The middle section where Mendez goes to Hollywood to work with veteran makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) allows Affleck to poke affectionate fun at his business and show how easily Hollywood, too, was duped into thinking there was a real movie called Argo in the works.
Affleck’s Mendez is a fish out of water in these scenes, but Chambers and Siegel jump into the caper with unabashed glee as they host a press event, take out ads in Variety, come up with a facetious tagline (“Argo fuck yourself!”), design a poster, and tackle every logistical task to make the whole thing look legit. (“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” Siegel barks.)
It’s great inside baseball.
Affleck’s influences are all over this film. The whole thing — from the wardrobe and hairstyles to the grainier cinematography to the action and tense drama — has the look and feel of a 1970s film; this is the kind of thriller Alan Pakula or Sidney Lumet might have made back in the day.
And if Mr. Jennifer Garner himself isn’t the world’s most compelling hero here, he’s surrounded himself with characters and actors who more than carry the film for him, and allow Affleck to focus his attention on making a better movie. (It’s funny, because he wasn’t the strongest player in The Town either.)
In 1980, when the seven Americans returned home, Mendez couldn’t take credit for his work because it was a security and safety risk. Affleck won’t have that problem.
With the crazy-but-true Argo, Affleck proves that he can make a great movie not set in Boston. He’s made Hollywood proud.
I’m giving Argo an A–.
Will you be seeing Argo, or have you seen it already? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.