Some stories are so unbelievable they must be true. This was the case with Charlie Wilson’s War, one of my favorite films of 2007, which examined the absurd series of events that led a relatively unknown Congressman from Texas to lead the charge to bring down the Soviet Union.
Argo, the latest from director Ben Affleck who also stars in the adaptation of CIA Agent Tony Mendez‘s account of what became known as the “Canadian Caper” involving the extraction of six American diplomats from Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis, is a similarly astonishing, and certainly well told, tale that’s so crazy it must be true.
Affleck stars as Mendez, a CIA extraction expert who comes up with a plan to safely smuggle out six Americans who escaped the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran on November 4, 1979. His idea is to pose as a film producer scouting locations for a new sci-fi movie in Iran and to pass off the six diplomats (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Joe Stafford) as other members of the movie project.
For more than two months the six members of the American Embassy have been hiding in the home of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber) who took them in when no one else would at great risk to himself and his family. And in two days Mendez has to convince the scared civilians to take an unbelievable risk and coach them to pass for Hollywood movie makers. As Mendez and his boss (Bryan Cranston) both know there are no great ideas to safely get the six fugitives out of Iran, but this Hollywood option is the “best bad idea” they’ve got.
To help sell the CIA on the idea, and to create believable background stories for himself and the fugitives, Mendez calls on the assistance of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had worked with the CIA previously, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as a Hollywood producer to help sell the con. Along with Cranston and some of the internal discussion of Mendez’s plan, Arkin and Goodman bring a surprising amount of dry humor to the proceedings with a few sly jokes at Hollywood’s expense.
The third time behind the camera proves to be the charm for Affleck who directed two strong but ultimately flawed films in Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Argo is by far his most successful movie as a director, and he puts in a good (although not Oscar worthy) performance to boot. The film’s tension is palpable and movie showcases a strong cast, particularly the six diplomats whose lives, for nearly the entire film, are in constant danger.
Affleck uses a variety of methods to help sell the realism including some terrifically recreated 70’s setting and costume design by Sharon Seymour and Jacqueline West. The cast not look at home in the period style dress and hairstyles but some uncannily mirror the real fugitives they portray (stay through the credits for see the comparisons). Affleck also uses both documentary footage throughout and animation in the film’s opening to set the stage for the events and put the audience in the time and place where the story will unfold. At first I thought this choice of opening was a little odd, but I was sold once I saw how well it later tied into the art design for the CIA’s fake film.
Although it has received generally well-deserved praise, the film has received some criticism for minimizing the role of the Canadians, particularly that of Ambassador Taylor. However, I’d say Argo goes out of its way to show the danger the Ambassador was willing to risk to save the lives of relative strangers. The script also provides the perspective of an Iranian member of the household staff (Sheila Vand) who faces some hard choices once she realizes who the Ambassador is secretly harboring.
Where his two previous films struggled under the weight of the original source material and eventually had trouble holding together, Argo is a success not only as a historical thriller but as one of the year’s best films. If, at times, the script slightly alters or exaggerates the series of events to create more tension and provide a thrilling final act, it does so to better deliver a consistently compelling tale. No film like this is going to be 100% historically accurate, nor does Argo pretend to be. Affleck gets the best of the cast and, when necessary, plays a little loose with history to help focus the narrative and deliver a film that should please both audiences and critics alike.