Mark Reviews Movies



3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 10/12/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 11, 2012

The conclusion of Argo is a foregone one. We know how this story of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis will turn out, so screenwriter Chris Terrio (working from the book The Master of Disguise by the film's central subject Antonio J. Mendez and an article by Joshuah Bearman) and director Ben Affleck instead build the film's tension out of a blow-by-blow account of the details of a covert operation happening alongside the larger and more publicly known captivity of over 50 personnel from the American Embassy in Tehran. Even with the final result being fairly obvious, the story and its details, which the CIA declassified in 1997, are still suspenseful; it is a tale of a series of trials with no room for error.

The operation in question has come to be known as the "Canadian Caper," and that name gives the correct impression of at least part of the mission. There's a considerable amount of absurdity to the foundation of the plan by Tony Mendez (Affleck, quite strong in stone-faced performance, making his occasional outward displays of emotion even more valuable): Fake a medium-to-low budget science-fiction movie that would necessitate shooting in Tehran. With that phony backstory—complete with a script and a production company—in place, Tony will go into the city, which is teeming with anti-American sentiment, disguised as a Canadian film producer and take six embassy workers who managed to escape the raid on the compound back home.

"There are no good ideas," Tony tells the two people from the State Department deciding the best course of action for this exfiltration. Anyone would agree it's better than the CIA's first idea, which was to have the six ride bicycles into Turkey. Tony shoots down every other idea his superiors offer, from posing as humanitarian volunteers to pretending to be teachers, with expert insight. It's winter in Iran, so there's no agriculture to help feed starving children in the country. No one in his or her right mind would be heading into Iran to teach in the middle of an international crisis.

The film possesses an equal, common-sense grasp of the workings of government bureaucracy and, soon after, the machine of Hollywood. Only in the former, with its ability and willingness to spend without any obvious limit, could such a plan be possible; only in the latter, with its confusing politics and its endless supply of people bending over backwards to participate in or hype the industry, would such a scheme fly under everyone's radar. As ridiculous as the whole affair sounds, the marriage between the two worlds seems perfectly plausible—even if one ignored the knowledge that it actually happened.

Tony enlists the aid of the famous makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who has helped the CIA in the past, and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who is in the twilight of his career. Both men insist that the production has to have the appearance of authenticity, and they're cynical enough about the industry to know exactly which cards to play. The three search through piles of scripts, hire a storyboard artist, and stage a table-read of the script for the press.

The center section of the film plays the comedy of the scenario for just about all that it's worth, and the playful tone of Tony's plan coming to fruition is a pleasant interlude between the tonally disparate sections on either side (As a reminder of the threat on the other side of the world, Affleck intercuts the read-through of the screenplay with a mock execution in the embassy basement). The film's prologue consists of a concise 2,000-year history of Iran (The information provided in the sequence, which mixes storyboards and archival footage, is the first and last piece context to the events that follow), which leads directly into the events of November 4, 1979, when a massive group of angry students stormed the embassy and took everyone in the compound hostage. The six who escape—Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scott McNairy and Kerry Bishé), and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane)—hide in the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran (Victor Garber).

On the other side of the Hollywood story (which later amounts to nothing more than an opportunity for the tension of a ringing phone with no one to answer it) is Tony's hurried training of his charges—some of whom are reluctant to go through with something so bizarre—and the various obstacles around and through which they must maneuver to flee the country. The first setpiece is an extended sightseeing tour through the city's bazaar, with a dead body hanging from a construction crane, angry protestors blocking the entrance, and a crowded market full of people who would not take kindly to Americans. The second is an extended trek through the airport with a series of checkpoints, while Tony's boss (Bryan Cranston) in Langley makes last-minute—sometimes last-second—dashes to fulfill the CIA's role.

If some elements of the climax are manipulative (Tony's boss is not the last to person to cut things incredibly close), they are at least effective in the moment. Affleck has a firm grip on the material, both in terms of the abridged characterizations and the crisp establishment of each barrier in the characters' path.  Argo is a tense and efficient machine.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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