The role of a lifetime
With ‘Argo,’ Ben Affleck solidifies his status as Hollywood’s hottest young director while giving us a thriller for our times
By Carl Kozlowski 10/11/2012
Some movies luck into being released at just the right time. Ben Affleck’s superb new historical thriller, “Argo,” is one of them.
Detailing the story of an outrageously inventive plan to rescue six Americans from Iran during the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis, “Argo” mixes plenty of twists and turns into a plot that’s spiced with wicked Hollywood satire, intense human drama and, at its core, a deep-rooted patriotism that manages to avoid jingoism. With ace performances across the board, sterling period details and a rousing nail-biter of a climax, it is currently the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar and should be a blockbuster to boot.
Solidifying his status as his generation’s Clint Eastwood — a guy who can be counted on to star in and direct award-caliber films like the Oscar-nominated “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone” — Affleck not only directs but stars as real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez, who was an ex-filtration expert called in to figure out a way to get six Americans hiding in Iran’s Canadian embassy out of the country. The six embassy staffers had managed to sneak out a back door while a raging pack of Islamic protesters overtook the US embassy and took 52 other staffers hostage.
“Argo” establishes the reasons that the protesters were angry from the film’s opening moments, as Affleck quickly delineates America’s history of propping up the corrupt Shah of Iran. A fundamentalist Islamic revolution forced the Shah to seek exile in Egypt and established religious hardliner, the Ayatollah Khomeini, as Iran’s new ruler, also sparking a desire to gain revenge against the US for harboring the former leader.
Thus began a 444-day standoff that ultimately played a large role in making Jimmy Carter a one-term president. But while nearly everyone is familiar with the story of the main group of 52 hostages — released peacefully moments after Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, was sworn in — the true story depicted in “Argo” was kept top-secret for nearly 20 years until President Bill Clinton declassified the mission’s details in 1997.
Those details revealed a plot literally stranger than fiction. While Mendez’s CIA overlords wanted to give the embassy refugees bicycles and have them ride stealthily to freedom across 300 miles of harsh desert conditions, Mendez instead hatched the idea of pretending the six were members of a Canadian film crew seeking to use Iran’s desert as the location for another planet in a sci-fi rip-off of “Star Wars.”
In the film, Mendez is given a week to pull it off, meaning he has to fly to Hollywood and team up with a horror-makeup expert named John Chambers (John Goodman) who has created secret disguises for prior CIA missions. Together, they recruit veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help them find the perfect script — an absolutely awful B-movie called “Argo” — to fool Iranian authorities and cast and stage a ridiculous reading in order to score an article in Variety that will provide perfect credibility to their ruse.
That’s only the beginning of the escape plan, an ever-more-complicated affair that is dependent on the non-actor embassy employees’ ability to memorize and act out elaborate fake personas. If anyone breaks character, no one gets a second take and everyone dies.
Chris Terrio’s script is built off of Mendes’ bestselling memoir “Master of Disguise,” and Affleck has said he strove to make the film at least 90 percent spot-on accurate. As a result, the film pulsates with tension at every turn and feels like a lost movie from the great 1970s era that produced such gritty classics as “Serpico” and “The French Connection.”
Yet “Argo” is destined to be a classic of our time. In depicting the lengths that a brave man went to in order to save his fellow Americans from a horrific Middle Eastern crisis, it both reminds us of the sad fact that history repeats itself and offers a glimmer of hope that good people will usually win out over evil ones. n