Declassified Real-Life Suspense

As a director, it is safe to say that Ben Affleck’s career is currently skyrocketing.  Following the critically successful, Boston-set Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the director now heads to the middle-east for an Iranian-set drama that just screams Oscar bait.  Based on a formerly classified true story, Argo not only tackles an incredible event in the history of America’s relationship with the Middle East, but does so with a Hollywood twist.  How will Academy voters be able to resist?

The movie opens on November 4, 1979 when the U.S. embassy in Tehran is overrun and dozens of American citizens are taken hostage.  A small group of six did manage to escape and sought shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador, where they wait in hiding for some kind of resolution.  Unfortunately, the State Department does not see a way of rescuing them without endangering the hostages.

Afflect as Mendez in ArgoSixty-nine days later, enter Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert initially brought in simply to consult on the best way to get the six out of Iran.  After dismissing all their bad ideas, he comes up with his own while watching a science-fiction movie with his son.  They are a movie crew scouting locations for a new film.  He’ll fly in and they’ll all fly out together.  It’s not a great plan, but it’s “the best bad idea” they have.

The fascinating true story lends itself to some incredibly intense sequences, such as one when Tony and his “crew” must navigate the busy streets pretending to be a Canadian film crew, knowing that they are as good as dead if anybody finds out that they are actually Americans.  And this sequence is nothing compared to the movie’s suspenseful final act.  Even if you know the outcome of this true story or even suspect it, these sequences will still have you on the edge of your seat.

Considering all of the intense, one-mistake-and-you’re-dead sequences in this movie, it can certainly do with some well-placed comic relief.  Fortunately, that is where the Hollywood sequence comes into play.  Needing to set up a fake studio and find a script with exotic locales, Tony heads to California and joins forces with a makeup artist and a producer, who both are able to maintain their sense of humor while still understanding the gravity of the situation.

Despite adding some much needed levity, the Hollywood sequence is where the movie loses some of its steam.  Even Tony seems to be annoyed by how much time he must spend “act[ing] like a big shot without actually doing anything.”  A sequence that cross-cuts between a table reading of the script and some of the hostages being placed in front of a firing squad does not quite achieve its desired effect.  Fortunately, the movie gets quickly back on track when it returns to Iran.

The movie’s production values are top of the line.  The costumes and make-up, especially, lend a level of authenticity to the action that takes place circa 1980.  Further adding to the authenticity, the movie opens with the Warner Bros. logo that preceded their films in the late seventies and, according to IMDB, Affleck also shot the movie on regular film, cut the frames in half, and blew those images up two hundred percent to increase their graininess.  All of these techniques, plus the use of actual footage, makes the action seem more real and, in turn, all the more intense.

As an actor in Argo, Affleck does well to just not get in his own way.  He remains focused as the central character, allowing his terrific supporting cast—namely Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin—to be the ones to stand out.  Credit also needs to go to screenwriter Chris Terrio for not only giving those actors some great lines to work with, but also for keeping the story on track.

Argo is a terrific movie and another step up in the directing career of Ben Affleck.  It will surely be heard from again come Oscar time.

Argo is rated R for “language and some violent images.”  It’s the subject matter and tone of the film that really pushes it into R territory.  The content (the language and violent images) weren’t necessarily worse than your average PG-13 movie.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Argo.