There are some stories we hear through the course of time that are too novel for reality. In some regards, these stories are too cinematic to make up. The subject found within Ben Affleck’s newest directorial effort, Argo, is theatrically real. Contrivances and historical inaccuracies aside, Argo is a fantastical Hollywood story concocted by Hollywood…by way of the Central Intelligence Agency. For as much shit as Hollywood takes for running out of ideas and creating remakes, Argo reminds us that they once created an original story so grand that it was the basis for a covert operation to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran circa 1979. Yet, a select Hollywood few are merely the beginning to this unbelievable tale, a tale that Ben Affleck wonderfully bookends with a beginning and ending that should come with a health warning that lists heart palpitations as a potential risk.
Affleck certainly gets the film off to rollicking start by introducing us to the moment in which a mass of angry Iranians, sparked by a controversial act by the United States, are protesting and attacking the United States embassy in Tehran. A combustible situation explodes, leaving a mushroom cloud of chaos within the breached gates of the embassy. Iranian revolutionaries detain nearly 52 embassy employees, except for six souls who miraculously slip out the back door. Lost and seemingly public enemy number one, the fearful six seek refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). There is no immediate, viable plan set forth by the United States to rescue the six diplomats. That is until Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) gets involved and concocts a madcap plan that would surely fail a cost-benefit analysis. His plan: Set up a dummy film production company and fly to Tehran under the guise that he’s a Canadian film producer looking for filming locations. Once in Tehran, Mendez would maintain the notion that the six Americans are part of a Canadian film crew looking for exotic shooting locations that would fit their science fiction film titled: “Argo”.
Danger lurks at every check point, and suspicion rises precipitously in a country set on exposing traitorous rats, so such an intricate plan rests on a handful of agencies and countries to ensure its success. The level of detail found within this ridiculous plan is stupefying, and it’s honestly one of the film’s greatest rewards. Mendez’s character not only creates fraudulent passports, but he has to actually create a fake film to sell his cover. After eliciting two Hollywood insiders, John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez works to poison the Hollywood hype machine through posters and fully loaded pressers, and most importantly, finding the one script that would justify a Canadian filmmaker’s presence in the pressure cooker known as Iran. The piercing, comedic insight about the Hollywood machine is terrific, but these light moments only momentarily defuse the tension Affleck has been cooking from the first frame. Undoubtedly, Affleck, and the intensely boundless screenplay by Chris Terrio, never lose sight of the lives at stake. One uncompromising example of this occurs when Affleck juxtaposes a table reading of the “Argo” script, costumes and all, with a firing squad execution at the Embassy. Never has reality depended so much on fiction.
Once everything is in motion, and Mendez is infiltrating the streets of Tehran, Argo reaches an unstoppable momentum. Enclosed rooms, where character battles ensue, hold just as much weight as a pulse pounding trip through an Iranian market. A few editing flourishes certainly expand the drama, like the blending of real stock footage in to the narrative, but the acting seals the deal. The ensemble is downright fantastic. Admittedly, some of the characters are a bit underwritten, making some of them feel formulaic, but each actor has an opportunity to give their character more resonance in a robust film. The one to really look out for is Bryan Cranston in the waning moments, as he completely sells a scene that could’ve been overly maudlin. Consumed by the anarchy is Ben Affleck, who doesn’t give a showy performance, but captures the essence of Mendez’s drive against a perceived insurmountable force. If anything, Affleck blends in with the rest of his cast. It’s fitting that a film about a lot of moving parts, shifting at once to form an unexpected coalition of liberation, is a true ensemble. Each facet of filmmaking, from the direction to Alexandre Desplat’s terse score, converge in to one of the year’s best films. Hollywood should write more stories like this.