With Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber. Written by Chris Terrio. Directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R for language and some violent images. 120 minutes.
When Iranians took over the American Embassy in Iran in 1979, six Americans managed to escape, finding refuge at the Canadian Embassy. Many months later, they got out of the country, long before the rest of the hostages were released. It was the first bit of good news we had during that long ordeal. Canada rightly received the credit and the gratitude of America for its role, but only a handful of people knew what the real story was. ARGO is the real story, based on information that was declassified in 1997.
Ben Affleck, in his third time out as director (after the Boston-based tales “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”), scores again with this riveting, incredible, and sometimes incredibly funny true-life thriller. The CIA asks Tony Mendez (played by Affleck with authentically embarrassing ‘70s hair) to come up with a plan to get the six Americans out before they are discovered. He is an expert at “exfiltration,” the opposite of “infiltration.” He secretly helps people leave a country.
His plan is to create a fake movie, a science fiction epic entitled “Argo,” and then explain to the Iranians that he is scouting locations for it. Iran claimed to be angry at the American government, not the rest of the country, and so a Hollywood producer scouting locations for an epic akin to “Star Wars” was allowed into the country. To make the scheme work, the fake movie had to create the illusion of being in active pre-production.
Special effects makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and (fictional) producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin in another great turn) are brought onto the project to provide the expertise that only Hollywood can in making the unreal look real. Actors are cast. Ads are taken in the trade papers. Offices are set up. To the outside world – and particularly anyone in Iran asking questions – “Argo” is a big Hollywood movie set to go into production.
Meanwhile, the six Americans aren’t suffering the fate of the embassy officials left to the tender mercies of the Iranians, which included fake executions, but they’re essentially prisoners in comfortable surroundings, living in fear that they might never get out. Even worse, they might be discovered and taken by the Iranians. Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) tries to be supportive even as he is risking his own life and those of his own people in harboring the Americans. This leads to the actual escape where, as you might expect, the movie takes some liberties with the real story and decides to go with Hollywood illusion instead.
Affleck directs with assurance. The scenes of the attack of the embassy are harrowing. The scenes in Hollywood are laugh-out-loud funny. The final escape will have you on the edge of your seat as he slowly builds suspense. With “Argo,” Affleck emerges into the front rank of contemporary American directors.
The bottom line: go and enjoy “Argo,” one of the most entertaining and smart movies to come out of Hollywood this year. It’s not a documentary, but as Joseph Hoover stated in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.