Bill Clinton probably should have gotten credit of some kind in Ben Affleck’s latest production. The former president may not have written the true story on which it’s based, but he did declassify it. If not for the action Clinton took in 1997, everything that happens in Argo would still be a secret today.
Not that everything that happens in Affleck’s third directorial effort actually happened. The film opens with a breathless re-creation of the November 4, 1979, storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in which 52 Americans were taken hostage by revolutionary forces. Everyone knows what happened to them over the following 444 days.
What few people knew for nearly two decades, however, is that six State Department staffers slipped out the back door undetected and made their way to the relative safety of the Canadian ambassador’s home. They hid there for months while the CIA, the State Department and Jimmy Carter worked on a way to get them home without getting the hostages killed.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA operative and “exfiltration” specialist who concocted the improbable solution. His idea was to fly into Iran by himself and fly out with the six refugees posing as a Canadian film crew scouting Middle Eastern locations for a low-budget Star Wars rip-off called Argo. I kept waiting for somebody to say, “It’s so crazy, it just might work.”
The picture is an almost one-of-a-kind mix of political thriller and Hollywood satire. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio infuse the factual account supplied by Mendez in his 1999 memoir, The Master of Disguise, with fictional embellishments and tension-cranking plot devices designed to maximize the movie’s goose-bump factor.
Chief among these is a story line in which menacing Iranian authorities little by little connect the dots and close in on the fleeing Americans just as freedom comes into view. Which makes for some white-knuckle final moments, but — minor detail — never actually happened.
Comic relief is provided by the two tinsel-town vets Mendez enlists to help pull off the ruse. John Goodman plays John Chambers, a makeup artist who won an honorary Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes and had a role in the design of Mr. Spock’s ears on “Star Trek.” Alan Arkin’s character, Lester Siegel, is a composite of several legendary personalities, including Chambers’ actual partner, effects wizard Bob Sidell, whose credits include E.T.
These two help give the agent the cover he needs for his story by setting up a production office, arranging casting calls, holding script readings and even taking out a full-page ad in Variety. Both performers do some of the most winning work of their careers.
The acting in Argo is uniformly solid, as are the dialogue, the pacing and the dead-on period details. This is a picture that’s both well made and well meaning. If it falters to some degree — which I feel it does — that happens, ironically, because it succumbs in places to the same fondness for Hollywood formula that it parodies.
Hey, I’m as up as anyone for a fact-based tale of intrigue in which the CIA is on the side of right for once, and America gets the better of Middle Eastern zealots. But I’m not a big fan of having my buttons pushed, and Affleck has turned Mendez’s account into a well-oiled big-screen suspense machine that pushes them in all the usual places in all the usual ways.
For a story about out-of-the-box thinking and high-risk heroism, Argo plays it surprisingly safe.