Oscar Movie Month: "Argo" Review

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Ben Affleck directs and stars in this 2012 political drama about the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. As the revolution in the country reaches a boiling point, a CIA 'exfiltration' specialist concocts a risky plan to free the Americans who have found shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador.
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Rating: R
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Genre: Biography / Drama / History

When the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was invaded in November of 1979, six American employees escaped. While the world watched the ordeal of the dozens of Americans held hostage inside the embassy unfold, a secret rescue mission played out off screen. "Argo" is the compelling true story of those Americans and Tony Mendez, the American CIA agent who masterminded an unlikely, high-risk operation, putting his own life at risk to lead the group safely back to American soil. Ben Affleck directs the film and stars as Mendez, turning in a stunning performance in both capacities. He's supported by an equally able team on both sides of the camera. Though Affleck has been a visible member of the entertainment industry for decades, this film may have audiences seeing him in an entirely new light.

"Argo" is high tension from beginning to end in the best way possible. While it's not an action film, "Argo" keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat as if it were. For those who recall the Iranian hostage crisis, the images of flag burning, anti-American chanting and chaos in the streets revives the fear and disbelief of that era. For younger viewers, the film is a rich lesson in American history and the nation's relationship with other countries during that era. However, the presentation is neither dry nor directly instructive. Rather, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do a fabulous job of taking the viewer into the moment. Details and atmosphere emerge through the experiences of the escapees and those pulling together into an improbable rescue team.

The brilliantly assembled cast includes an interesting mix of noted veterans. John Goodman makes a convincing departure from his usual funny man role as Mendez's Hollywood connection, a movie-industry make-up man who helps build the group's cover. Alan Arkin and Victor Garber deliver characteristically strong performances. The escapees, however, are portrayed by lesser-known actors. That's a good choice, as it's easy to identify with the group. The fact that there's nothing standout about any of them is not just appropriate but precisely what the story needs. These aren't high-level diplomats accustomed to sticky situations but ordinary Americans caught in unthinkable circumstances.

The story is well known today. Mendez proposes a unique cover story to bring the escapees out of Iran: a production team scouting locations for a science fiction film. To build credibility, he recruits a Hollywood make-up artist (John Goodman) and producer (Alan Arkin), who go to great lengths to convince the world that they're filming a picture called "Argo." Meanwhile, Mendez travels to Iran with false identification and passports. The group has taken refuge at the home of the Canadian Ambassador, and Mendez must prepare them to pass themselves off as movie industry professionals. The Americans, with nerves already frayed and doubts about the rescue mission and the man who has arrived to guide them to safety, are ill-prepared to deliver life-saving acting performances.

While the strongest moments in this film are fraught with tension, there's much more in play than the simple drama of the seizing of the embassy and subsequent escape. The dilemma faced by the Canadian Ambassador and his wife, who harbor the group at great personal risk, is palpable. Everyone in this film faces difficult decisions, from Mendez walking into harm's way to the Iranian maid who conceals the presence of the escapees. Conflict arises among the Americans when Mendez arrives, and the clock is ticking loudly as he attempts to win their trust and prepare them for their roles. Ultimately, the CIA agent faces a critical moral dilemma.

It's a testament to Affleck's directorial prowess (and to his camera crew and editor) that a well-known story has audiences on the edges of their seats. The fact that everyone knows this tale ends in victory seems to do nothing to alleviate the tension as the story unfolds.

"Argo" is a film that works on many levels. Film buffs are guaranteed to appreciate the artful creation of tension and the high-impact use of imagery in both the U.S. and Iranian scenes. Virtually everyone is sure to learn something new about the history and political culture surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis, particularly those young enough not to have watched it unfold. Those who haven't forgiven Affleck for questionable career moves such as "Daredevil" and "Gigli" are obliged to give him fresh consideration after this masterpiece. In short, "Argo" is a movie worth watching: for the educational value, for the acting, for the camera work and for the emotional payoff.

Rating: 4 out of 5