"Argo" plays perfectly like a classic thriller: it's smart, suspenseful, and fun. "Argo" is both an entertaining thriller and a disturbing document of a very bad time in history.
"Argo" is equal parts reenactment, documentary footage, and artistic license. It starts off with a nice refresher on the past 60 years of Iranian history. In just about a minute, it makes much more sense out of what happened to that country than CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News ever could combined. It goes up to 1979, the year in which the Shah was overthrown and the Iranian Revolution began. Director Ben Affleck gives us a full fledged reenactment of the Iranians breaking into the US Embassy in Tehran. This scene would have felt overlong, if it wasn't so important to the rest of the story, and directed with nail-biting intensity.
Actually, "Argo" is not about the hostages in the Embassy but rather a select few that nobody knew even escaped. A group of Americans hid out in the Canadian Embassy. The Canadians didn't quite bother the Iranians as much as the Americans did, as the Canadians never seem to bother anyone, as they are the greatest country ever to exist.*
But I digress. The CIA needs a way to safely get the Americans out of the Canadian Embassy and back to America. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is on it. Tony is good at his job, and, like almost any government agent on film, he just wants to get home and see his son. You'll hear more about this later in the review.
Tony and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) go through every option and can't find a logical way to sneak the Americans out of Iran. As O'Donnell, Cranston is much more subdued than I'm used to seeing him. But then again, anyone in government who's most concerned with following orders isn't going to chew up the scenery. As the clock ticks, no idea seems to work. That is, until Tony comes up with the craziest idea ever: shoot a fake movie in Iran, and sneak an entire fake crew out of the most dangerous country in the world.
"Argo" is a heist film in which the big heist involves the making of a movie. This is the kind of story that can make any film buff go crazy. When rescuing the Canadian hostages, Tony tells them that they all must assume the roles of certain members of a film crew. They must learn and memorize their backstories for when they are questioned at the airport. They are essentially memorizing characters and becoming a part of a lie. While making a fake movie, they are essentially acting one out in real life. And we, of course, are seeing that movie be acted out in real time.
To make this fake movie come true, Tony goes to Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who then brings him to legendary producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, who utters a line of dialogue that has already become classic). They bring Tony a script for "Argo," a B-grade sci-fi film that could be filmed perfectly in the Middle East. They have their cover. It is too bad that the "Argo" within "Argo" never got mad. I'd really like to see this tale of overthrowing a king on a distant planet. The story of the sci-fi "Argo" actually sounds alarmingly similar to what was happening in Tehran during that time. Get on it, Affleck.
"Argo" marks Affleck's third time behind the camera. With every feature, he gets better and better as a director. He directs "Argo" like a confident, old pro, and not just a young director still searching for his voice. Behind the camera, Affleck is someone who is incredibly well versed in both movies and the art of filmmaking. As he also showed with "The Town," Affleck has a talent for strictly following genre conventions yet also making them fresh and exciting. He has conquered the chase scene. Towards the end of "Argo," there is one chase that totally puts any chase in "The Town" to shame. Some of the final chase in "Argo" might be fictionalized, but Affleck knows that part of showing history on film is bending the truth a little bit. After all, even in a story as exciting as this one, facts can be boring.
Sometimes, the cinematic conventions that "Argo" follows work to its advantage, and other times not. While I understand that Affleck just wanted a strong back story for Tony, I would not have minded if they just completely removed everything about his estranged family. It didn't make Tony any deeper or more complicated as character. All I wanted to see was Tony at work, and how his job effected him. "All the President's Men" didn't need to show personal relationships in order to flesh out Woodward and Bernstein. In a movie about the workplace, showing someone being good at their job can often be enough to bring out character.
I am not against character development. However, I am against character development that turns the character into a prototype rather than a human. I can site a more recent example, actually also about the CIA, in the show "Homeland." The most important details about the CIA Operative main character are how her mind functions and how that effects her job. Tony's relationship with his son didn't effect his job. His job effected his relationship with his son. This was mentioned several times, but never explored deep enough. There was one possible ending nestled in "Argo" that would have been a little darker, yet absolutely perfect. Instead, the ending they went with pushes a little too hard to tie things together nicely. Hard-boiled thrillers should never end with a perfectly tied little bow on them.
But maybe I am being a little tough here. After all, Tony's relationship with his son is partly forged on a love for movies. If it wasn't for his son watching "Battle of the Planet of the Apes," Tony might never have thought of his crazy rescue idea. There is something wonderful about the nature of cinema that I think "Argo" showed flawlessly: movies can connect two estranged people, or two people from completely different cultures, in a way that most other art forms can't. The idea of a story can cross a threshold even if two people don't even speak the same language. "Argo," in simplest form, is a love letter to filmmaking. Pay very close attention to the graininess of every shot. That's on purpose. This could be one of the last times you see a movie that's actually shot on film.
*Note: I am not Canadian, and they are not the greatest country ever. However, I am a big fan of their country.