Its opening minutes describe the basic history of Iran in the twentieth century. It makes no bones about the United States’ involvement in removing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and no excuse for his replacement, the puppet despot Reza Shah. In sharp, terse summary, it describes the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shah’s medical asylum in the United States, and the resultant firestorm of anti-American sentiment. Argo lays out the situation precisely, illustrated in storyboards and photographs.
The film drops us into the storming of the American embassy in Iran and proceeds from there at a swift clip, never letting the tension drop for a moment. The basic plot: Six Americans are stranded in hostile Tehran and their government wants to bring them back home. Though ten weeks elapse between the riot and the movie’s central action, the pacing remains tight. Even as the six American refugees hide in relative luxury in the Canadian ambassador’s home, the danger circles ever closer. Even the moments of levity in Hollywood with the grizzly charm of Alan Arkin and the always game John Goodman are backlit by the approaching time table, the absurdity of their CIA-sanctioned deceit, Affleck’s ever-present tension. Even the overstuffed geography lessons in Washington, D.C. are packed with heightened anxiety. Argo’s ability to sustain that aura of suspense is its great success. The film is captivating.
The price of this deft swiftness is the minutiae of the Iranian Revolution, the politics involved on both sides of the Atlantic, greater details on the remaining 52 hostages held in the embassy. It is a price but not a detraction, for Argo is not a political film. Surprisingly, its bluntness about the United States’ self-inflicted wound renders the political situation merely background for the unfolding story, which is undoubtedly a thriller. And if certain elements from this covert operation (declassified in 1995) are punched up for dramatic effect, it suits the direction, if not the facts.
As I write this, Argo has already won the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a bona fide success and a sterling example of a focused film. When The Town swept across theatres a few years ago to similar acclaim, a critic at Ain’t It Cool News pointed out that in the future we will look back at the years of Affleck-the-actor as a weird prelude to his true calling as a director. I think Argo justifies that assumption. Hollywood’s most prominent directors, Michael Bay, Spielberg, James Cameron, make their livings on towering blockbuster epics. But these big box-office monsters are not the only kinds of films. With Argo, Affleck dazzles with a story that is so finely polished that its compactness is akin to a bullet. It fires straight, it fires true, and by the end of the movie, it hits home. The music will manipulate you, the right and wrong of your country will slip by you, but if Argo has one job to do, it does it very well. And craftsmanship like this should be rewarded.
I will end however on the single point that bothered me in the midst of this cross-country caper. One can’t blame director and producer Ben Affleck for wanting to play the lead character. His tight posture, bone-weary face, and talent for putting away booze is at the center of the film, and it is a solid performance. When the suspense is at its lowest ebb, his grim visage never fails to remind us just what is at stake, and how much internal conflict is aflame inside the man. He anchors it. However, Affleck portrays CIA Technical Operations Officer Tony Mendez, and Affleck certainly is not Latino. It may seem like a small issue, but this fact coupled with the top secrecy of the Hollywood Option further marginalizes the contributions of Latinos in the U.S. government. It did bother me. It may not bother you. (Reportedly, it does not bother Mendez, who in addition to his Mexican ancestry also claims Irish and Italian heritage and does not consider himself Hispanic.) If Affleck’s performance leads to greater acknowledgement of this man’s truly heroic mission, then all is ultimately well with the world.
It’s a great film, so go see it, though be forewarned it is a solid R. There is violence, and people in both Hollywood and D.C. are plenty blue with their language. That in itself is a plus for free speech, but it’s hard not to walk out of the theatre shouting “Argo fuck yourself” at the first bystander you meet.
Based on The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez & The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman
Directed by Ben Affleck
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