If you know me in real life, you know that I have to be really intrigued by a movie to go see it for full price on a Friday night on opening weekend. However, Argo hooked me with great early reviews and a fascinating premise: The story of how the CIA (working with our Canadian allies) rescued six American embassy personnel from Iran during the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981. So was it worth $10 to see the film in theaters? Simply put, yes. In fact, Argo is hands-down the movie of the year for me.
Ben Affleck (who also directs) plays the lead role as Tony Mendez, a down-on-his-luck CIA exfiltration expert who is initially called in to “consult” with the State Department on rescuing the six, who amazingly were able to walk out a back door as the embassy in Tehran was being stormed. Mendez quickly realizes that State is way in over its head, and lobbies to take over the whole operation with a brainstorm (inspired by his son’s Star Wars obsession) to sneak out the six disguised as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film. The whole operation takes on a tongue-in-cheek air as Mendez recruits Hollywood types John Chambers (a real Hollywood makeup artist, played by John Goodman) and Les Siegel (played by Alan Arkin, who steals every scene he is in) to make the film–Argo–look like the real deal. Victor Garber also does an excellent turn as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who risks his own life by hiding the six Americans in his residence.
Part of the genius of Argo is that blends tone perfectly. On the one hand, director Affleck creates a genuine sense of danger and thrill surrounding the fate of the six. While they are never fully developed as characters, their terror is conveyed mostly through looks, gestures, and sparse dialogue. Affleck also gives us a glimpse of Iran spinning out of control, an extremist state where people are executed in the streets. The threat to Americans is very real. At the same time, the antics of the Hollywood storyline provide lots of laughs. The whole cover story is ridiculous, and everyone involved knows that, but Chambers and Siegel are in the business of BS and they’re determined to sell it for all it’s worth. The film also deserves kudos for the costume, makeup, and set design, which recreate the era so deliciously that it’s like rolling around naked on a shag carpet.
Those who like politics, thrillers, and spy movies will love Argo. Anyone who follows current-day political events will also note the parallels between 1980 and today: Popular revolutions in the Middle East spinning out of control, American diplomats in danger, and a government trying to keep pace with rapidly unfolding events. Argo also suggests how things have changed. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the press and a president in the midst of a hotly contested election would unite in secrecy and refrain from publicizing this issue. If this crisis happened today, I wonder if the Obama administration and the press would unite the way they did in 1980 to avoid publicizing (and politicizing) a rescue operation in the interest of protecting the Americans still in Tehran.
Argo is the type of movie you leave wanting more. It will certainly spark after-discussions and Internet searches about how much of the story is true, and how it relates to the world today. To me, such curiosity is the sign of a great film. This one deserves a spot at the top of your to-see list.