“Argo,” starring and directed by Ben Affleck, demonstrates that as far as the United States’ troubles in the Middle East go, there’s nothing new under the sun. Based on a true story, the film follows the CIA plot to rescue six of the American Embassy workers who managed to escape just before an Iranian mob took over their Teheran workplace on November 4, 1979. Even knowing that the attempt succeeded, we are fascinated by this rare bird—an intelligent film about the intelligence community.
It also features what may be an even rarer commodity in this genre: generous helpings of humor, most of it generated by screen veterans Alan Arkin and John Goodman. These two are brought into the action by dint of a superficially crazy idea for rescuing the six Americans. Challenged to get them out, CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), hatches a scheme that involves making a fake movie. The embassy staffers, who have fled to the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran (played by native Canadian Victor Garber), will pretend to be filmmakers scouting locations for a schlocky “Star Wars” knockoff to be filmed in that country.
Problem is, they have to make the whole nutty project seem credible. So Mendez contacts a friend who has done some contract work for the agency, makeup/prosthetics artist John Chambers (Goodman). Chambers (who in real life was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar) gets him a contact with producer Lester Siegel (Arkin), using his contacts in the Hollywood community—plus his extraordinary chutzpah—to get the fake project underway.
Affleck, who knows the territory, treats us to a send up of the film industry along with the political thriller. As he cuts back and forth among Washington, L.A., and Teheran, the film achieves an uncanny mix of humor and suspense. (The salty language throughout earns the movie its “R” rating.) Arkin and Goodman are outstanding in their segments, providing the comic relief that ratchets up the tension when we return to the extraction itself.
In contrast, Affleck’s humorless, understated portrayal of Mendez embodies the “less is more” approach to acting at its finest. His scenes with the other actors in all three locations are notable for their emotional control in a highly-charged setting. Mendez never loses his cool while all about him men are losing theirs. Among them, Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s CIA boss, Jack O’Donnell, stands out with a solid, credible performance.
Behind the camera, the work of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Sharon Seymour deserves special notice for recreating the look and feel of the ‘70s in the widely disparate locales the movie depicts. I’d also mention the quiet original score by Alexandre Desplat for its unconventional approach to the thriller scenario. Director Affleck keeps the camera tight on the action and the actors, establishing the appropriate sense of claustrophobia for the captive Americans as well as the fairy tale atmosphere of La La Land. One scene in a Teheran bazaar particularly stands out in capturing the hostility surrounding the Americans—a situation that still prevails, unhappily.
“Argo” achieves a topicality that Affleck likely didn’t intend, coming on the heels of the Libyan killings. The ending represents one of the rare “feel good” moments of America’s misadventures in the Middle East for the past half-century, a sad history that the film deftly captures at the opening through a melding of cartoon (or story board?) and documentary footage. It heralds the opening of the Serious Season when the studios begin to release their Oscar hopefuls. This one may get several nominations.