★★★★ / ★★★★
While talking with his son over telephone and watching J. Lee Thompson’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets an idea on how to extract six Americans, working for the United States embassy, who are stuck in Tehran. It is a near impossible task given that the city is in utter upheaval because the Iranians want the U.S. government to extradite Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to his home country so that he can answer for the crimes he has committed to his people. Mendez suggests that he and the six men and women can disguise themselves as a film crew scouting for a location to shoot the latest science fiction picture called “Argo.” But before Mendez goes to Tehran, the fake movie needs to be as realistic as possible–a script, a poster, storyboards, and the whole shebang–because it is certain that suspicions will arise.
“Argo,” based on the screenplay by Chris Terrio, has the template of a slick caper flick, dramatic gravity of a grim political thriller, and a small but proper dosage of humor that pokes fun of the eccentricities of those who work in Hollywood. Although it succeeds in maintaining a high level of intensity, I could only image how the real extraction must have been like given that most of it is based on true events.
The picture benefits from being shot with confidence. Even though not many of us, including yours truly, may be familiar with the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the film places us into the situation without spelling out everything that is happening. It does so by thrusting us into a mood of urgency, the camera jumping back and forth between the anger building up to rabid rage outside the walls and the paralyzing panic circulating inside. The images of common, sweaty people climbing over walls while chanting in unison is complemented by people in professional dresses and suits desperate to burn and shred files. Those coming from the outside know that they will get inside eventually and those inside know that there is nothing they can do to stop the trespassers. The opening scene, edited by William Goldernberg, makes a highly compelling watch.
The funny moments occur between Mendez and those who work in Hollywood: Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a movie producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), a make-up artist. We get to see how much both men take pride in their work. Though Arkin and Goodman do not have much time on screen, we get a sense of who their characters are right away. The irony cannot be any more beautiful: a man required to perform his business in secret is working with men who create work that are not exactly inconspicuous. This a wacky combination but somehow they manage to work with one another.
The picture is about twenty minutes too long. Halfway through, there are several scenes where the six Americans hiding in the home of a Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) complain about the plan of their extraction. While it should be shown that anyone has the right to doubt a course of action especially if lives are on the line, it is so slowly paced. Some of the concerns expressed even sound annoying. I took comfort in the fact that at least one of them voices out that they have no choice but to go with it because they do not exactly have any other options to get out of the country. Lastly, the sequences of Mendez looking solemn while alone in a dark room are not exactly subtle. We already have an understanding of the seriousness of the situation without having to be reminded constantly.
“Argo” is an engaging experience divorced from its inspirations, what it is based on, and what is true or what is exaggerated. Strictly as a film, under Ben Affleck’s direction, it makes us root for innocent people, regardless of their nationality, to escape and recapture the chance to live their lives. It is not a history lesson but a lesson on how more thrillers with an intelligent script and eye for detail should be made.