To call Argo, Ben Affleck’s based-on-a-true-story thriller, a spectacular achievement would be, in all honesty and respect, reaching a bit too far. And branding it simply a “great movie,” which seems to be something that many have done recently, isn’t enthusiastic enough. Rather, here’s what it is – the best, and most vivid, cinematic rendering that you could ever hope to see incredible formerly classified and larger-than-life operation that the CIA undertook in the midst of the 1979 Iranian embassy hostage crisis to rescue six escaped American diplomats being sheltered in the house of the Canadian ambassador. And nothing much more added, but then again that’s already more than enough. There’s much chance that at the end of the film, you’ll be in complete awe of not the film itself,but instead of the unbelievable slice of history that Affleck brought to life.
What a crazy story it is. Affleck portrays Tony Mendez, the CIA extractor who, coming up with the best of the bad ideas available on the tight schedule that his boss (Bryan Cranston) was given, devised such a crazy balls-to-the-wall plan to get the Americans out of the turbulent and dangerous country that you truly believe that this could happen only in the movies. But it isn’t so, as Argo and history shows us, although, ironically enough, a film was involved in the risky operation – a Star Wars ripoff named Argo that was never made and one that proved the perfect cover for Mendez to get into Tehran, Iran, and back out with six extra passengers, all pretending to be part of the fake film’s location-scouting crew. To make his cover believable, the taciturn, bearded Mendez goes to Hollywood, enlisting the help of special effects/makeup legend John Chambers (John Goodman) and old-timer producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to sell a movie that won’t ever be made.
Combining a very timely atmosphere of Middle Eastern revolt and revolution, although it doesn’t feel as frighteningly effective as would be expected due to the refreshingly intelligent stance that Argo takes on the Iranian Revolution (more on that later), with a tongue-in-cheek and lightly humorous Hollywood quasi-satire, there’s an adept mix of wait-is-this-really-happening absurdity mixed in with real-life, grave consequences in the film. Comedy (“Argo f–k yourself” is one joke that never gets old) and drama are deftly interchanged, sometimes a little too pronouncedly; however, that’s the way this real-life story is, laugh-out-loud funny one second and gravely serious the next. There’s nothing much in the way of character development but you still feel deeply involved, as all the actors – especially Cranston, Goodman, and Arkin – give their satisfying best. Likewise, there’s nothing new in Argo‘s execution, but it makes for a solid movie all the same.
The thing that surprised me the most about Argo, ultimately, was the way the Iranian Revolution, and the Iranian people who took part in it, was portrayed. There’s ample footage of anti-American fervor and violence at hand, and it is certainly clear who are the antagonists, but, thankfully, it never struck the volatile chord that I though it would in these sensitive hate-filled times. Affleck makes it clear to show that the people took American hostages as leverage to demand that the United States government return the self-exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which would never happen because the cancer-stricken, dying former ruler was undergoing chemotherapy in America (and, of course, President Carter made clear that he would never negotiate with “terrorists”).
Iranian women are also widely and noticeably shown, which wouldn’t be something worth of note if Argo wasn’t the first such film to show them as they are. In an almost shot-for-shot recreation of real-life photographs of the Revolution (the comparisons are helpfully shown side-by-side during the credits), burka-wearing Iranian women are shown on the streets alongside their male counterparts holding assault rifles and protesting, and young female Muslims belonging to the embassy-occupying student group give recorded speeches that play constantly on TV screens in the background. And the Canadian ambassador’s native housekeeper, played brilliantly by Sheila Vand, turns out to have a more important role than you might expect. [A]