In “Argo,” director and star Ben Affleck creates an utterly disarming and believable depiction of what happens during a life and death crisis: Both the rescuers and the rescued in this true story about the C.I.A.'s mission to “exfiltrate” six embassy workers in 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis experience unfathomable tension and fear and doubts, and treat their wounds with the unsavory salve of gallows humor. This is a no-nonsense and quietly stunning film that could play as a dark satire of covert ops and diplomacy, but it's all true — even the elements that look like Hollywood exaggeration — which is part of what gives “Argo” its power.
In 1979, after Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was deposed as Iran's last Shah, militant followers of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage, creating an international crisis that unfolded over the course of 444 days. During the siege, six Americans managed to escape the compound, finding safety in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber). The Canadians alerted the C.I.A. via secure, back channel messages, and while the six embassy workers (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and Scoot McNairy) were safe for the moment, Iran's revolutionaries were piecing together shredded photos and documents seized from the embassy, information that would ultimately lead to capturing the six refugees.
In Washington, D.C., C.I.A. officials mulled several plans for pulling these six people to safety, but the danger of the operation rendered most of these ideas unfeasible. But Tony Mendez (Affleck), a veteran of the C.I.A.'s disguises division who was then overseeing the production of false travel documents for agents, put forward a bizarre but utterly workable plan. Mendez proposed creating a false front: a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction movie.
With help from John Chambers (John Goodman), a movie makeup artist who worked on “Star Trek” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez secured an unproduced screenplay called “Argo” and established Studio 6, a shell production house, as a cover story. Mendez then flew to Tehran, armed with stories in trade papers about the film, and schooled the refugees on their new identities as director, producer, director of photography and so on, and distributed false travel papers. The key struggle for Mendez and the six people in his care was getting out of Tehran before the militants could discover their true identities.
There are composite characters in “Argo,” including Mendez' C.I.A. supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) and Siegel, a fictionalization of Chambers' colleague Robert Sidell, but the other 95 percent of this story is completely true, and Affleck's recreation of scenes and people from this crisis is uncanny. The verisimilitude on display in “Argo” is magnified by Affleck's commitment to unflashy, realistic depiction and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's use of natural light. The film not only looks like a document of its era, but resembles the great dramas Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet directed during that time.
Affleck's work both as director and star sets the correct tone and is a major source of the film's believability. As Mendez, Affleck is a quiet and forceful presence, simply and emphatically laying out the particulars of the operation to his charges. Mendez is a man of action, not an action hero. He maintains composure in front of the people he is trying to save, and at no time in “Argo” is there any question that Mendez completely understands the gravity of his situation or the stakes involved.
But since Affleck began the second chapter of his career, becoming the fine director of dramas such as “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” he seems nearly as cognizant of great storytelling as his “Argo” character is of the mortal realities of his mission. This is why “Argo” is such a tour de force: Affleck knows that a true story, especially one in which lives were hanging in the balance, should respect the emotional truths faced by the people who went through it.
— George Lang
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Victor Garber. (Language and some violent images)
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