Argo

In 1980 at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, we were told that six American Foreign Service workers had escaped from the embassy and had hidden in the residence of the Canadian ambassador.  The Canadians, according to the official story, had sneaked the escaped staffers out of Iran.  It wasn’t until the Clinton administration declassified the CIA files involving the incident that we learned that Company agents orchestrated the escape with help from our neighbors to the north and that it was a very close thing.  The only mystery now is why it took so long for Hollywood to make a movie out of it, especially since Hollywood played such a big part in the escape.

Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, is an exfiltration expert for the CIA, which is someone who is good at getting people out of countries and situations that are life-threatening.  He is called in to consult on the project to get the six American staffers out of Iran.  As officials from the State Department pitch one idea after another, he shoots them down and takes it upon himself to think of a plan that will work. 

Eventually he thinks of his friend John Chambers, played by John Goodman.  Chambers is a legendary make-up artist, specializing in prosthetics.  He designed Spock’s ears and won an honorary Oscar for the ape make-up in the original Planet of the Apes.  He had also helped the CIA in the past.  Mendez develops the idea of posing as a movie producer scouting locations for a science fiction epic called Argo.  The six staffers will pose as his crew and after a few days will leave with him.  For it to work, however, they need a convincing cover story, in other words a movie with a real script, a real producer and offices.  Chambers steers Mendez toward Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, a veteran producer, who has no IMDB page, so I assume that he is fictional or else a composite.

Ben Affleck fulfills the initial promise he showed as a director in Gone Baby Gone.  Argo is an engrossing film.  It’s two plus hours pass unnoticed.  This is a tremendous achievement for an adaptation of a script that is mostly people talking.  The story is very much about the process of getting these people out.  There is just enough characterization to make you care about what happens.  And care you do.  This movie will have you on the edge of your seat.  Even at the start, the scenes of the embassy being taken over are terrific.

The look of the film is striking.  Affleck uses a grainy film stock and natural lighting to make it look like a drama shot in the seventies.  Likewise the costumes and make-up recall the era, especially the huge eyeglasses everybody wears.  All the men have facial hair.

Affleck’s Mendez doesn’t say much.  He’s cool in a pinch and always seems to know what to do.  John Goodman doesn’t stretch much, playing the gruff but always willing to help Chambers.  Arkin finds the humanity in the stereotype of the high stakes producer.  This is a man obsessed with his work and yet aware of the price he’s paid for that obsession.

Argo is Hollywood congratulating itself for its role in this affair.  In this case, however, the kudos is deserved.

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