If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from director Ben Affleck’s relentlessly tense, painstakingly detailed Argo, it’s that we should consider the possibility that our history has been manipulated more than many of us would care to admit. Whether to protect the innocent, the guilty, or just the interests of a government more concerned with secrecy than the truth, the hidden details of history are sometimes the very ones that steer our collective fate more than the stories that make headlines, and in only his third feature as a director, Affleck re-creates just such a clandestine incident with a master’s touch and a winning dash of levity.
When militants seize control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the height of the Iranian Revolution, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) creates a fake Hollywood film production in order to rescue a group of American diplomats who have sought refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. As the six members of the embassy staff remain behind closed doors, armed militants are conducting thorough searches of local homes and killing anyone suspected of harboring the Americans. Realizing that it’s only a matter of time before the six are identified and taken hostage, Mendez offers a unique -- yet potentially dangerous -- solution: Posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter into Tehran under the pretension of scouting locations for an upcoming science-fiction opus, gather up the refugees, pass them off as his crew at the airport, and fly out of Iran right under the militants’ noses. Shortly after touching down in Iran, however, Mendez contends with a few unexpected developments that threaten to erode the bond of trust he needs to establish with the refugees, which could in turn expose his deception. Meanwhile, even if they do manage to make it as far as the airport, government bureaucracy threatens to leave them hopelessly stranded in their most desperate hour.
By opening his film with a detailed description of the events leading up to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Affleck smartly puts the action in historical context while effectively getting viewers up to speed on the complexities of the incident. He tells the tale with a sense of urgency that carries over quite effectively into the main storyline, as Mendez seeks the help of some high-powered Hollywood friends in order to make his plan work. In the hands of a lesser director, contrasting the absurdity of the Hollywood system with such a deadly serious situation could have easily come off as disjointed or contrived. But, as a director, Affleck has a knack for the mechanics of tension, and he knows the importance of providing an emotional release for the viewers as he quietly ups the stakes with each passing scene. Of course, some of that credit must go to screenwriter Chris Terrio as well, but it’s primarily Affleck’s sense of pacing and timing, combined with pitch-perfect supporting performances by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, that really draw us into Argo.
Once Mendez arrives in Iran, the personalities of the refugees come into play and the tone of Argo becomes a bit more serious. But the cast are there to back Affleck up, and thanks to actors Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, and Scoot McNairy in particular, the film’s tensest scenes play out in a way that will have most viewers grinding their teeth. At the same time, production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West ensure that every frame of Argo looks entirely convincing, while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures sprawling vistas and tortured expressions with the same careful attention to detail. It all adds up to a genuinely immersive experience that’s still compelling despite the fact that we knew the outcome when we walked into the theater. That’s a real testament to the artistry and talent of everyone involved. So lest audience members find themselves at odds over who truly made this improbable mission a success -- the brave Canadian ambassador or the innovative CIA agent -- it might pay to remember that, much like filmmaking, it was a collaborative effort that relied heavily on the strength and ingenuity of everyone involved. When we work together we can accomplish great things: Ben Affleck’s Argo isn’t just proof of that theory, but a fine example of it as well. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan