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Affleck’s ‘Argo’ perfectly blends historical fiction with action

Movie Review | 4 out of 5 stars

Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 08:10

 

It’s safe to say that Ben Affleck is no longer a Hollywood joke. For all the missteps he made post-“Good Will Hunting” (1997), Affleck has more than redeemed himself in his recent turns as a director of “Gone, Baby, Gone” (2007), “The Town” (2010) and now “Argo.”

“Argo” is a political thriller based on true events surrounding the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. While 52 Americans are held hostage at the American embassy in Tehran, six manage to escape and find refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s house. It’s only a matter of time before the Islamic militants holding the American embassy discover the six are gone, and the CIA needs to find a way to sneak them out of Iran.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration expert who devises a plan to get these Americans — known as the “houseguests” — out. He will create false identities for everyone in the group so they can disguise themselves as a Canadian film crew heading to Iran to scout locations for a B-science-fiction film, “Argo.” Mendez will fly into Iran, and with any luck, they will all fly out together. It’s an absurd idea, but as Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (“Breaking Bad” star Brian Cranston) reluctantly acknowledges, “It’s the best bad idea we have.”

Leaving behind the smoky rooms and pinstripe suits of Washington, D.C., Mendez jets off to Los Angeles to recruit a Hollywood team that will help him make his fake movie. The film juxtaposes the boozy opulence of LA, the epitome of American self-obsession and insincerity, with grainy footage of angry Iranian mobs and the quiet, suffocating tension inside the Canadian ambassador’s house.

“Argo” does a masterful job of weaving together the unfolding stories in Washington DC, Los Angeles and Iran. There are several sequences that cut quickly between all three plotlines, and Affleck utilizes this technique to nail-biting perfection in the film’s finale. But perhaps the most skillful use of this device comes with a glimpse of the Islamic militants marching hooded captives in front of a firing squad. That moment melds with a reading of “Argo” at a Hollywood costume party and with scenes from the Canadian ambassador’s house, where the houseguests play Scrabble in front of a TV showing President Jimmy Carter. As the fate of the houseguests becomes inexorably entwined with the triviality and mindlessness of Hollywood, viewers are reminded of what’s at stake.

Yet for all the tension and anxiety it loads on the audience, “Argo” is smartly punctuated with humor. To make his fake movie, Mendez collaborates with a surly producer, Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), and John Chambers (John Goodman), the “Planet of the Apes” (1968) costume designer who was integral to the plan in real life. They bring much-needed lightness and laughter to the film, and Arkin makes himself indispensable with snappily delivered lines like, “You want to sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood in their breakfast cereal, then you’re going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most-watched city in the world?” Still, Affleck never lets us forget the gravity of the situation. Even in moments of levity, the outside world intrudes, like when characters watch televisions that show reporters discussing the ongoing crisis in Iran.

Even though “Argo” is successful in many respects, it fails to give us insight into the houseguests themselves, as very little time is devoted to their character development. We get only a glimpse of houseguest Mark Lijek’s (Christopher Denham) personality when he refuses to sign on to Mendez’s outrageous plan. The others remain solemnly fearful. Yet Affleck manages to invest his audience in their survival by focusing on Mendez’s character.

Although he first appears as a disheveled CIA operative, we soon learn Mendez is separated from his wife and no longer lives with his son, Ian. Affleck’s sad-puppy-dog expression is most heartbreaking when he calls his son as he is about to leave for Iran. The phone rings in an empty kitchen, and as a crestfallen Mendez hangs up the airport payphone, we realize he may never speak to his son again. The life-and-death reality of the mission hits home sharply.

Of course, the film also hits home for another reason: We are still terribly familiar with the dangers American men and women face overseas. Affleck includes snippets of 1970s news broadcasts, and the solemn reports from unsmiling anchors are unmistakably similar to those we see on television screens today. As the film opens nationwide a month after Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Libya, “Argo” serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices Americans continue to make. 

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