Review: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ expertly entertains and educates

TELLURIDE – The Iran Hostage Crisis is one of the more defining moments in American history, but it has never received its due course on the big screen.  That changes somewhat in Ben Affleck”s engaging and entertaining new thriller “Argo” which sneaked at the 39th Telluride Film Festival Friday.  

One of the key downfalls of Jimmy Carter”s presidency, the crisis found 52 U.S. citizens captured by the Iranian government after revolutionaries stormed the grounds of the American Embassy.  The attack occurred after weeks of mounting tensions after the American backed Shah of Iran fled to the United States following the country”s Islamic Revolution in 1979.  During the embassy attack, however, eight State Department employees escaped and found sanctuary in the home of a sympathetic Canadian Ambassador.  Their fates were unbeknownst to the general public or the Iranians who were unaware of American in Tehran except for the hostages.   “Argo” tells the amazing true story of how a CIA operative worked with an Oscar-winning makeup artist to secure their freedom.

The film begins with the riveting and haunting takeover of the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979.  Affleck thankfully spends more time on this moment of political upheaval than you”d expect in a studio film and it”s a sign of the broader themes the picture intends to discuss.  During this siege the audience is introduced to the eight escapees while Affleck crosscuts to a shocked and seemingly unprepared CIA, White House and State Department back in Washington.  The government”s initial reaction is that the hostages will be let go a few days later without any negotiations.  Affleck fades to black on this prediction and when the image fades back up a title card notes it’s 69 days later, among a montage of yellow ribbons across the country.  At this point we meet our hero, Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA operative whose expertise is in pulling out sensitive assets in dangerous situations. His blunt, but passionate boss, Jack O”Donnell (Bryan Cranston), pulls him into a meeting with the State Department who are taking the lead on trying to pull out the eight employees.  It soon becomes apparent to everyone involved that the State Department doesn”t have an adequate plan to free them without endangering their lives or those of the 52 held hostages.  Meanwhile, tensions are rising among the hiding Americans as local news conveys the skyrocketing escalations between the U.S., Iran and the Soviet Union (who had just invaded Afghanistan). The escapees soon face the harsh reality that they may never get out of Tehran.  

Luckily, Mendez has an inspiration while watching, of all things, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television with his son.  Why not swoop the hiding Americans out of the country while pretending the group are members of a Canadian movie crew scouting a film shoot in Iran?  It sounds absurd, but neither the CIA nor the State department can think of anything else with a better chance of succeeding.  And during a meeting between Mendez, O”Donnell and the Secretary of State (an uncredited Philip Baker Hall) Mendez has to admit to his bosses, “This is the best bad idea I got.”

“Argo” then transitions to Hollywood where Mendez meets up with John Chambers (John Goodman), an accomplished industry makeup artist (he designed Spock”s ears for the TV series “Star Trek”) who clandestinely worked with the CIA on a number of projects over the years.  Chambers lets Mendez know that to make this cover work they are going to have to make it appear as real as possible. The duo then recruits veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, as a likely composite for a number of real-life participants) who eventually agrees to faux produce the picture. The trio decides to take on “Argo,” a screenplay in turnaround that has the fantasy elements perfect to pretend it needs to be shot in Turkey, Iran or the Middle East.  

It must be noted that if Affleck hadn”t set up such a vast canvas for “Argo” Arkin would basically steal the entire movie after his first two scenes. Clearly at the top of his game, the Oscar winner rips one memorable one-liner off after another, much to the amusement of Goodman. One particularly memorable moment finds Arkin trying to acquire the rights to “Argo” from another producer (Richard Kind) and he basically wipes the floor with him to do it.  This is easily the most entertaining portion of the picture, but Affleck is always careful not to let the movie industry antics overwhelm the serious crisis at hand.  

After convincing the world and Hollywood that the fake “Argo” is a real production, Mendez eventually makes it to Tehran only to find himself sidetracked by the Iranian bureau for cultural affairs and one particular member of the hiding party, Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), who is convinced the entire operation is destined for failure.  While “Argo” has featured a number of riveting scenes to this point, it”s this third act where Affleck really walks the line with the audience.  You could argue that the film plays with cinematic fire a bit too much in depicting the fate of the eight Americans, but how Affleck stages the escape allows the picture to have an unexpected emotional climax.

Like this critic, Affleck was 7 and 8-years-old when the crisis took place and the attention to detail in the picture is impressive.  It”s one thing to dress and style your cast in the era”s fashions, but it”s another to select the right media clips and references to assist in overall tone.  “Argo” doesn”t hit you over the head with musical references (in fact, there is only one that comes to mind).  Instead, Affleck uses unexpected tools such as forgotten news reports to communicate the tense and despairing mood back in the states.  Two reports that probably haven”t been seen in decades focus on an Iranian being beaten in front of a cameraman in Houston, Texas and another regarding the growing frustration among Vietnam veterans at the military”s inaction to free the hostages.  Before Mendez gets to Tehran, Affleck wants the audience to feel the frustration and sadness that has fallen over the country.  Amidst all the build up for the tricky escape, Affleck expertly foreshadows Carter”s downfall without ever uttering the words Ronald Reagan (there is a shot of Ted Kennedy winning the New York state Democratic primary, however).  By keeping this top of mind, Affleck allows the events of the third act to become the triumph President Carter (who authorized the mission at the last minute) never publicly had.  For many years, history told us that the operation to free the Americans was completely under the guise of the Canadian government and that the U.S. was as surprised as anyone else.  That was hardly the case, but in order to avoid retribution to the American hostages still in Iran, the charade played on until President Clinton authorized the operation publicly in 1997.  Affleck spoke to Carter for background while making the picture and the former President is heard speaking about the choice to keep silent over the film”s credits.

With one of the better ensembles in recent memory, Affleck purposely gives his cast room to shine while not diminishing the risks Mendez took.  Arkin plays the schmaltzy producer with enough heart to make him three-dimensional and Cranston finally gets a supporting role he can really sink his teeth into. McNairy is extremely believable as the stressed out Stafford and Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Richard Dillane and Goodman all deliver strong performances even if their screentime is brief.

Chris Terrio”s fine screenplay is based on two sources: a selection of the novel “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Menendez and a Wired magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman.

Cinematographer Rodriego Prieto also delivers some of his finest work to date.

“Argo” opens nationwide on Oct. 12.