‘Argo’ movie review: Ben Affleck directs and stars in Iran hostage crisis thriller

Ben Affleck’s Argo presents the kind fascinating believe-it-or-not story that only Hollywood could come up with. And no surprise – Argo was Hollywood creation. What may be surprising is that it’s mostly true, anyway. It’s a good thing the film pays such slavish attention to detail and wears ‘based on a true story’ on its sleeve – otherwise, you’d never believe a word of it. 

In 1979, during the Iran hostage crisis, six American diplomats managed to escape the besieged US Embassy in Tehran, eventually making it to the residence of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. If found, the six would be executed as spies, and Taylor and his wife would also face consequences; if a rescue attempt failed, it would put the lives of the 52 hostages taken from the Embassy in danger. 

In what became known as ‘The Canadian Caper’, the US CIA and Canadian authorities came up with a plan so strange it could only be true: “Argo”, an elaborately faked science fiction film that was, in the wake of Star Wars, scouting exotic locations in the Middle East. 

Exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez would fly into Tehran posing as a producer, and fly out with the six diplomats posing as crew members. The full extent of the operation only became known when it was declassified in 1997; Mendez detailed the events in his 2000 memoir Master of Disguise.

In the film, based partially on Mendez’s book, the Argo plan was chosen over having the diplomats pretend to be students, or charity workers, or simply handing them six bicycles and a map to the nearest border. “They’re all bad plans,” remarks a CIA official played by Bryan Cranston, “but this is the best bad plan we’ve got.”

Affleck stars as Mendez, an estranged husband and father, who comes up with the idea after catching one of the Planet of the Apes sequels on television. He enlists the aid of makeup artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman), who won an Oscar for his work on the original Apes film, to help develop the cover. 

They recruit Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to produce the fake film, and go to such lengths to make it look real that they host an in-costume script reading, create elaborate storyboards and promo artwork, and take out a full-page advertisement in Variety.

Argo shifts tone with incredible ease as it changes location, from hostage drama in Iran to Hollywood-skewering dark comedy in Los Angeles to bureaucratic CIA satire in Washington. With this third feature, following Gone Baby Gone and The Town, director Affleck has crafted his finest work. What’s particularly impressive, coming off the somewhat indulgent and excessive The Town, is the workmanlike skill with which Affleck stages and executes his story: there’s almost no fat in the film’s 2-hour running time.  

One of the most remarkable things about Argo is its incredible attention to period detail; this is embodied at the closing credits, which pairs photos of the actors against the real-life people they portrayed (most of the characters, anyway – the real-life Mendez, of Latino extraction, looks nothing like Affleck). The resemblance is uncanny, not necessarily in the casting but in the makeup and wardrobe – right down to the last facial hair, everything is immaculately recreated. Period detail is likewise first-rate; this thing bleeds 1979.

Which leads me to my one minor quibble with the film: all the painstaking work put into getting the reality of this film right makes it ever more apparent when the action becomes Hollywood-ized: when one-step-ahead thriller movie clichés are thrown in to spice things up. 

Argo works (and works well) as a tense and exciting thriller, and would have been a different film if it were a procedural document, but to fully appreciate it you’ll have to accept the authenticity with the Hollywood make-believe. 

Of course, Hollywood make-believe is a central thematic device in the film; the rescue attempt is sold on the fascination with science fiction films and filmmaking. A lot of Argo’s appeal comes down to that Hollywood angle, and those in or around the industry may appreciate it more than others. It’s an aspect that has made the film an early frontrunner in the 2012 Best Picture race, while Goodman (as the real-life John Chambers) and Arkin (as a fictional producer) seem like good bets for Supporting Actor. 

Is Argo the best film of 2012? Probably not. But it’s an incredible story, told with lean efficiency and expert craftsmanship, which is mighty good enough.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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