‘Argo’ is a science-fiction experience beyond your wildest dreams. Set in a Middle-Eastern world, it depicts epic battles of a future war, featuring beloved characters in the form of robots, princesses, and of course the brash young hero who inspires the citizens of the planet to rise up against their oppressors and fight for their freedom. Yet in reality, all this is of little consequence to Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’, in which the script, sets, characters, and everything involved with such a blatant ‘Star Wars’-ripoff is all part of an elaborate ruse by the US government that saved the lives of six Americans at the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The time is 1979. Iranian protestors, enraged at the US’ harboring of Iranian dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, storm the US embassy and take several employees hostage. Six of these are able to escape before the mob breaks in and they find temporary shelter at the Canadian embassy until they can be rescued. Back home, the CIA is faced with determining a strategy for their immediate rescue. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), an operative who, inspired by his son’s affinity for cheesy sci-fi B-movies, devises Argo, a fake Hollywood production that will disguise the embassy workers as a Canadian film crew on a location scout. All he has to do is convince the Iranian government to approve the film, fly out to Iran, meet up with the workers, and get them all on a plane out of the country in character. The plan is perhaps best described by Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) as, “the best bad idea we have.” It certainly seems so – before Mendez arrived, the plan was to disguise the embassy workers as teachers, give them all bicycles, and have them ride across the country into a neighboring allied nation.
‘Argo’ is all about selling this extraordinary bluff, this unbelievable lie, to a government relentlessly hostile towards Americans. Inspired by true events, the film doesn’t shy from giving us a gritty, uninhibited look at revolution-torn Iran. Director Affleck, also known for ‘The Town,’ has a knack for intense, down-and-dirty street violence, and keeps the focus on the lives that are at stake in this unstable third world. The filmmaker also isn’t afraid to squeeze in a laugh or two at the concept of such a ridiculous cover-up, but amidst the sheer absurdity is a group of honest, hardworking people doing their best to get these embassy workers home safely. Those stakes in mind, Affleck believes in the validity of ‘Argo’, and gets us to believe in it too.
Perhaps Affleck’s greatest asset is his ability to pinpoint the drama of a script and bring it to life through the cast. That sensibility is present in every shot of ‘Argo’, keeping the film’s events grounded and relatable in its human, accessible performances. Being an actor himself, Affleck clearly understands and respects the craft enough to give his actors ample room to bring their characters to life. Sure, while ‘Argo’ is a bit hindered by rarely-stable handheld shots and Affleck’s general lack of a more pronounced style, there are few other directors qualified to helm such a film. If it hasn’t already been called as such, ‘Argo’ will surely be the film that kickstarts Affleck’s already solid directing career.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the look of the film - a high-contrast, grainy, hued appearance of something straight out of the late 70s. Affleck even uses the old Warner logo of the decade, bringing back a mood reminiscent of films like ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, or even ‘Dirty Harry’, movies about the escalation of violence, social change, and the ins and outs of the government. It’s a great stage to play on, made even better with the added eccentricities of the dawn of genre filmmaking sprinkled throughout the film’s phony production sequences. Perhaps that’s how those films must’ve been seen as by people at the time, with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ considered such oddities, and suddenly studios filling their lots with C-3P0-inspired costumes, trying to replicate the latter films’ success. Certainly film fans will get a kick out of the added backdrop.
‘Argo’ is one of the year’s best films from one of the decade’s most quickly becoming actor/directors. Its slick storyline, focus on performance, and overall atmosphere provide a solid window into an obscure bit of our country’s history. Affleck’s eye for drama in particular brings a level of humanity and emotion that would otherwise be absent with such material. People are already calling for a Best Picture nomination at next year’s Oscar ceremony, and I’d be hard pressed not to agree.