What It's About
An ambitious blend of historic fact, nail-biting suspense and Hollywood satire, "Argo" skillfully recounts the astonishing true tale of a covert rescue mission during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Fifty-two hostages were seized by Islamic militants at the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. What we didn't know for 18 years, until President Clinton declassified it in 1997, was that six others had escaped and found refuge at the Canadian embassy that day.
Because Aytollah Khomeini's Iranian rebels were killing Americans on the street, the six diplomats' whereabouts had to remain a secret. CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocted a preposterous scheme, along with movie makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), that they would pretend to make a sci-fi movie, "Argo," scout Iran for locations, and the Embassy staffers would assume identities as filmmakers in order to flee on a return flight. Everyone was looking for the next "Star Wars," so why wouldn't the Middle Eastern desert be a perfect setting? They pull off the far-fetched scenario on Day 87, but at great risk and personal sacrifice.
Iran, Hollywood, CIA Headquarters and the White House
A true ensemble piece, "Argo" features many top-shelf character actors who immersed themselves in these real-people roles. Alan Arkin (Oscar winner for "Little Miss Sunshine") is a hoot as jaded movie producer Lester Siegel, delivering the best quips and the signature catch-phrase that I can't repeat here. John Goodman ("Roseanne") is delightful as the real Oscar-winning Chambers, Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") stands out as the blustery CIA boss, and Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights") is spot-on as President Carter's glib Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, as is Victor Garber ("Alias") as the compassionate, brave Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
Familiar actors Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe convincingly play the skeptical and terrified Americans Bob Anders, Cora Lijek, Joe Stafford, Lee Schatz, Mark Lijek and Kathy Stafford. Be sure to stay for the end credits, where the real characters' ID photos are revealed.
Ben Affleck, who subtly portrayed the CIA extractor, also directed, and has a sure hand with actors. He has humanized all these characters to make the story richer and even more compelling.
Like "Apollo 13," even though you are aware of the outcome, "Argo" has you on the edge of your seat. The escape is chronicled so superbly and the tension mounted so effectively that the audience burst out in applause. The `70s are recreated with meticulous detail and bolster the film's authenticity. There are times when CIA Headquarters feels like the Washington Post newsroom in "All the President's Men," and that's no accident. Screenwriter Chris Terrio's screenplay carefully mingled all the crucial elements here, with key flashes of humor (particularly the Hollywood portions). The editing, camera work and art direction enhanced it considerably.
Now with his third feature, Affleck ("The Town") firmly establishes himself as an excellent director. He has crafted an absorbing yet entertaining movie with complicated situations. He didn't finish it in broad strokes, but in fine shadings, and made it appear effortless. Well-played, sir.
What Doesn't Work
While the film is nearly flawless, "Argo" has fictionalized a few parts for better cinematic flow and plot purposes. I do not know what all is fact and fiction, but the airport chase doesn't ring true - and isn't. However, that can be overlooked in a fictional film that effectively recreates one of our country's shining moments, and is now brought to light.
Stars: Four our of four
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber
Director: Ben Affleck
Rated: R for language and some violent images