Argo is a full-body experience of a film. By the end, eyes ache from not blinking, backs hurt from being tensed up and heads are tied up in knots. But as long as you enjoy being completely absorbed by a movie (and have some Advil on hand for next-morning soreness), it’s entirely worth it.
Director-actor Ben Affleck takes another leap away from the nothing-but-a-heartthrob he was in the early 2000s — I remember a sixth-grade friend had a purse that said, “Mrs. Affleck” — by presenting another well-executed thriller. But to call Argo a thriller wouldn’t do it justice; it goes beyond the genre to present a history lesson, a show-business picture and, most importantly, an American (and Canadian) hero story.
When Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979, six Americans were able to get out in time to flee to the residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). That’s where they stayed for more than 80 days while the CIA figured out how to get them out. After a round of bad ideas circulate the the CIA boardroom, “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with the “best bad idea” they have: to masquerade the Americans as Canadian filmmakers doing location scouting for a sci-fi film called Argo. Enter his good friend and Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help pull it off.
Anyone who knows their history knows that the six hostages got out, but that doesn’t matter at all in this film. Be prepared to have a dent in your rear end from the edge of the seat, because there is no way not to get sucked into the plot. The obstacles Mendez faces never end, especially in the last half of the film as the six Americans face the Tehran airport. Glances between Americans, the frustratingly pessimistic CIA, six untrusting pseudo-hostages, flashes to what the Iranian hostage-holders are doing to their prisoners and Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score push audiences head-first into the story.
But apart from the intense story line, the use of straight-from-the-archive footage instills the same terror in the audience as those in the situation must have felt. Most of what’s on screen was reshot for the film, but if you sit through the credits (I highly recommend you do so you can hear former President Jimmy Carter speak about the situation), you’ll get to see the film stills versus original photos. Call it bragging rights for Affleck or just a genius way to point out that this was a real event in our history; every “Based on a True Story” film should be required to include such an introspective end.
And speaking of re-shot: another thing that makes Argo more than a spy thriller is the way the filmmakers cut and stretched the digital film to make it look like something that could have come out in the 1980s. In fact, everything in the movie, from the technology to Affleck’s shaggy hair and bell-bottoms, reminds us that this was early 1980s. They go the extra mile to show Iran as it was in the ’80s (and still is), from the subtle announcement on the plane that once they pass into Iranian airspace, all alcoholic beverages must be disposed to the nonchalantly burning car on the side of the road that no one seems to care about, let alone notice.
Politically, the film has a strict dichotomy. The beginning opens with a narrated account of Iran’s history and what led up to the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The way they tell it, America and Great Britain was at fault for kicking out the secular, democratic leader and putting in an indulgent shah in the name of cheaper oil. The shah gets overturned in a coup and the extremely conservative Ayatollah is put into power — an event that only happened because of America’s actions. But even though Argo starts off describing our failures and stupidities, the rest of the movie is a tale of American (and Canadian) ingenuity and brilliance. It doesn’t necessarily make up for the country’s stupidity in handling Iran earlier in the 20th century, but certainly makes the viewer forget for about two hours that America isn’t always the good guy. Oh, and that Canadians are possibly the bravest people on the planet.
America isn’t the only not-so-innocent group being put in a positive light in Argo, however. In a time when we see Hollywood as a possible reason for gun violence or just a group of elitists using their fame to sway politics in their favor (Fox News’ words, not mine), Argo gives us another perspective. This time, instead of being the liberal, “anti-American values” conglomerate that conservatives like to point fingers at, Hollywood is the hero. Mendez wouldn’t have done what he did without the help of some of the Hollywood Elite who are now constantly under fire for their outspoken views. Maybe Affleck is defending his fellow Hollywood men and women; maybe he’s just telling a great story. That is, after all, the film industry’s job — apart from helping the CIA once in a while.
The Verdict: Argo is pure adrenaline-riddled brilliance with a plot that could keep anyone’s interest and performances that both venerate and enliven the true American heroes who pulled off one of Hollywood and the CIA’s greatest stunts. Get ready for a white-knuckled ride of a film with far more meaning than anyone thought the Boston actor could pull off.