The film, which is based on events that took place during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, tells the behind-the-scenes, still not generally known story of how the CIA's top extractor, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), pulled off one of the most bizarre top secret plans involving Hollywood and a Star Wars-like film project. If the truth behind the mission hadn't been declassified by the US government during Clinton's presidency, we'd be highly doubtful Argo has any basis in fact. But it was declassifed, and we now know that when Iranian revolutionaries attacked the US Embassy, six staffers snuck out unnoticed and were taken in by Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). After months of being hidden away from prying eyes and not allowed outside Taylor's home, the situation had escalated to the point where the six had to be rescued immediately. Plans were tossed around, including providing them with bicycles and maps and then hoping they could make it out of Tehran before being discovered, Mendez came up with the idea of using the cover of a movie production company scouting for locations as a means of getting the six out of the country.
It was, as all involved admit, the best of all the bad plans, and it took the cooperation of Hollywood special effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood producer Lester Spiegel (Alan Arkin) to pull off the ruse. They bought the rights to a sci-fi action-adventure script called Argo, created a buzz around it by inviting journalists to a lavish cast reading, and then hoped their fake production company would pass scrutiny by Iranian officials. The plan was for Mendez to travel to Iraq masquerading as a producer, give the six Americans false identities as members of the film crew, and then fly them out of Iran right under the noses of the revolutionaries (who were publicly hanging people they believed were spies). There was no room for error - everyone, including the Embassy workers, had to completely buy into the film crew angle.
The Bottom Line
Much will be said about Ben Affleck's third directorial effort and all the accolades he receives for the work he did behind the camera on Argo will be well-deserved. However, what's unexpected is just how well he does as the film's lead character. This is an Affleck who doesn't allow a single false moment to enter Argo, an Affleck who's in control in front of as well as behind the camera.
Of course, Affleck doesn't do it all on his own. Argo is an ensemble piece which should garner acting honors for at the very least Alan Arkin, and is yet another prime example of why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' governing body should add an ensemble acting category to the Oscars. It's a shame to have to single out any member of the Argo crowd, as Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber, and the six actors who play the American Embassy workers who need to be smuggled out of Iran - Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishe - all deliver intense performances.
Argo, the 2012 movie, is an edge-of-your-seat thriller. It's also extremely smart in that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio knew when to lessen the tension and lighten the mood, accomplishing both via the teamwork of Goodman as Chambers and Arkin as Spiegel, Mendez' Hollywood connections (they reminded me of The Muppets' Statler and Waldorf). And although there are plenty of lighter moments, Argo absolutely takes the actual events seriously.
It's also important to point out to those skeptics who are tired of politics or being preached to by filmmakers, Argo has no political agenda. This is straight-up about the facts and about the bravery of all involved in the rescue operation. Argo's also a love letter to Canada, fully acknowledging that without the Canadian Ambassador's involvement in keeping the Americans hidden - and without the Canadian government's approval of fake passports for the trapped Americans - the rescue operation would not have taken place, and in all likelihood the six would have been captured and probably put to death.
Argo never gets sidetracked or bogged down as Terrio's smart, sharp script weaves a mesmerizing story. Affleck displays confidence as an actor and director, and Argo is his best work in both capacities to date.
Argo was directed by Ben Affleck and is rated R for language and some violent images.
Theatrical Release: October 12, 2012