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Grade: A –
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr.
Of all the indelible images in Argo—blindfolded American hostages; burning U.S. flags—perhaps the most jarring is a shot of a ramshackle Hollywood sign circa the 1970s, three of its whitewashed lettering gone and the rest well into decay. The thing is the landmark was actually restored to its once and present form in 1978, a full year before Islamist militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and triggered the Iran hostage crisis, the setting for the film. The question of why director Ben Affleck would include such a patently anachronistic visual goes to the heart of why he made Argo.
While Iranian students and other extremists took 52 Americans hostage, six others managed to slip away while the embassy was being raided and took sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador, unbeknownst to anyone except the upper reaches of the U.S. and Canadian governments and their intelligence services. With the clock ticking until the group’s inevitable discovery, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts a cover story to ferry the stranded diplomats out. Drawing from the popularity of sci-fi cinema in the wake of Star Wars, Mendez develops an elaborate back-story involving a fake film project titled “Argo,” a ostensible science fiction flick with a Middle-Eastern flavor looking to film at locations inside Iran. Working with a venerable Hollywood director (Alan Arkin, terrific) and make-up artist (John Goodman) to lend credence to the Wag the Dog ruse, Mendez flies to Tehran armed with fake Canadian passports and dossiers assigning each of the six diplomats their role in a Canadian film crew that Mendez hopes he will fly to freedom.
For his third directorial effort, Affleck graduates from well-crafted genre pictures (The Town; Gone Baby Gone) to more formidable filmmaking. Argo is narratively taut and efficient in its composition. A prologue ably summarizes America’s contribution to the Islamic uprising and its anger towards the U.S., seguing into a white-knuckle rendering of the storming of the embassy. The rest of the film conveys both the inanity and bravery on display in freeing the band of terrified, stranded diplomats.
Affleck manages the difficult task of maintaining tension throughout a story with a known outcome. Like the rescued Americans, the audience doesn’t feel relief until their plane clears hostile airspace. Still, Affleck doesn’t overly wallow in any single crisis, and there’s no bureaucratic snafu that can’t be resolved with a couple of phone calls and some vociferous theatrics.
The director’s primary interest lies more in the context of these events, not their mere recounting. You don’t have to buy into Reagan’s vision of “Morning in America” rising just over the horizon to acknowledge that Argo takes place at a crossroads for both America as a whole and the movie industry, a junction point between a period of decline and the revitalization poised to follow. The hostage crisis capped a tumultuous time for the U.S., over a decade of political assassinations, social unrest, war in Vietnam, Watergate and economic calamity. Likewise, that derelict Hollywood sign embodies the ebb of the once renowned studio system. Repeated references to Star Wars as the harbinger for a new crop of sci-fi scripts—and a reference point making a B-movie project like Mendez’s Argo more believable—is quite deliberate. Principal shooting of George Lucas’ modern blockbuster took place in Tunisia and England, not the Hollywood back lots. Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic after discovering that 20th Century Fox’s visual effects department had been disbanded.
Only truth could justify a script in which an audience is asked to believe that in the midst of a radical religious revolution in which individual liberties are being suppressed, dissidents are being hanged in the street and Americans are being kidnapped en masse could a group of white filmmakers (Canadian or otherwise) be allowed passage and access to scout the Grand Bazaar in Tehran as a possible shooting locale. For Affleck, Argo isn’t just an ode to American heroism. It’s a salute to its most durable, exportable commodity: movies.