I’m old enough to remember the Iran hostage crisis. I remember it fairly vividly – the way Walter Cronkite would count off how many days the hostages were in captivity at the end of each newscast, or the yellow ribbons, or the Iranian woman who would give the daily report and anti-United States rants on the news and how we would come to hate her so much – since I was a child I didn’t realize at the time that she was probably just as trapped, in her way, as the hostages were. It was an especially dark time for our country, I remember.
Ben Affleck’s ARGO remembers that period of American history with uncanny clarity – the desperation for any piece of good news to come out of that awful situation. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t sugarcoat history, from either side – it is incredibly sympathetic to the hostages’ plight, but ARGO never lets us forget the background of how everything fell apart one day in 1979, either. ARGO is an exemplary film, directed with utter confidence and skill by a man who for too long has not been taken seriously – as an actor or as a director, even though he’s already got two pretty great movies under his directorial belt. ARGO is a huge leap forward and catapults Affleck into serious auteur territory. Any director would be proud to have a movie like ARGO on their resume, and ARGO recalls the great films of the 1970s like Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN or Sidney Lumet’s SERPICO. It is stunning just how good this movie is.
In 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy, taking everyone there hostage. However, six of the Embassy staff slipped out the back door and walked across the street to the Canadian ambassador’s (Victor Garber) house, and managed to avoid capture. It’s only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities discover that they have six less hostages than they are supposed to have, and so the CIA frantically tries to come up with a plan to get them out.
Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a doozy, after talking to his son while watching a PLANET OF THE APES movie; Mendez can set up a fake movie in Hollywood – a science fiction movie, since they are all the rage in 1979 – and use those credentials to pretend that the six hostages are with the film crew. What it will take is to set up a real production, and for that he enlists the help of makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). It’s a plan so crazy that it just might work, even as the hostages begin running out of time.
The tonal shifts from the deadly serious CIA scenes to the comedic Hollywood scenes are handled with real skill. Once Mendez makes his way into Iran – a modern-day Mordor if there ever was one, especially in 1979 – the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering how they are going to pull this off. It also doesn’t help matters that the six hostages are skeptical that this will even work. Fortunately Mendez has a good friend in Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) who is willing to back his play. But as politics shift and time begins to run out, the desperation of Mendez and the hostages becomes palpable.
Affleck is excellent at building tension. He sets up the stakes very early, and as events unfold he takes great pains in letting the audience know that time is a factor. As the film steps out of Hollywood and into Teheran, the situation grows more desperate and the hostages aren’t sure that Mendez can deliver what he promises, especially with such a harebrained scheme. Even Mendez can’t be sure the operation will work. Chris Terrio’s script is cracking good – full of wonderful lines and great characterization. These hostages aren’t anonymous – Terrio gives each of them a voice and the performances live up to the words. Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as the Hollywood execs, give the movie much needed levity, but they also bring great dignity to their performances as well. Alan Arkin is especially good – he’s a producer that’s on the way out in Hollywood, but he just wants to do the right thing. Goodman’s Chambers is equally passionate. Fans will want to keep their eyes open to see Michael Parks play Jack Kirby – he doesn’t get any lines, but his manner and look are unmistakable.
Bryan Cranston is as good as he’s ever been as Mendez’s friend and partner – one particular scene as the plan reaches a crucial point has Cranston bringing out his inner Heisenberg for the purposes of good, and it’s a terrific moment. Other supporting cast members like Kyle Chandler and Victor Garber do good work as well. But Affleck as Mendez is terrific – playing a man used to blending into the wallpaper, Mendez is forced to put his principles and passion on the line to help rescue these people, and Affleck manages to cram all that empathy, fear, and determination in quiet moments that completely sell the character.
I imagine that the Academy might want to load up the dump truck full of awards to Ben Affleck’s house – but this is the rare occasion when all that Oscar hype is worth it. ARGO is an intense, powerful story, full of great moments and acting, and it pushes Ben Affleck into another level of director. ARGO would have fit perfectly with all those great character movies of the 1970s, and is easily one of the best films of this year.