Ben Affleck offers an oddball mix of political thriller and movie-biz satire about an unusual rescue mission during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis is entertaining, but extreme.
How can you not love a film that has a smart sense of history, an affection for all things ’70s, a well-tuned political compass and a plot kick-started by a chance viewing of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”?
“Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is based upon the story of the amazing and incredibly unorthodox rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis. It is movie magic. Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing, is an enjoyable, real life, race-the-clock thriller that nabs you at the start and never makes a wrong move.
The Iranian revolutionaries, the Komiteh, storm the US Embassy in Teheran. The Americans are definitely outnumbered, their marines weak, as the revolutionist take over the building, taking nearly 50 Americans hostage. Six, however, escape. And it is up to the CIA and its exfiltration specialists to figure a way to smuggle them out before they are captured and beheaded.
Ben Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who was an exfiltration expert devoted to sneaking into foreign and hostile territories and extracting American citizens. The six Americans who escaped the embassy were hiding at the home of then-Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber). Before Mendez’s participation, the government’s greatest rescue plan involved sneaking into Iran and furnishing the American escapes with bicycles. This was one of many ill-conceived ideas but in fairness, the unprecedented situation was uniquely complex and required a solution from outside of the box.
Affleck manages to lead without hogging the stage, playing Tony as a sharp but appropriated hero type who has just enough subtly-layered complexities to keep us enthusiastic about him, without those points of attention becoming distractions or loose threads.
Enter Mendez. When we meet him, he does not seem like any type of super spy. Instead, he’s the epitome of human: wallowing in self-pity, using alcohol to dull the pain of a separation from his wife and 10-year-old son. Downtrodden Mendez serves as a metaphor for the times. Actually, Affleck and writer Chris Terrio do such a fantastic job adding layers to Mendez as a character, we don’t just have empathy for him - we feel everything this man is feeling.
Also featured in “Argo” is Bryan Cranston, who plays CIA assistant deputy director Jack O’Donnell. After seeing Cranston in a variety of latest movie roles where he’s either underutilized (“Rock of Ages”) or his character is terribly written (“Total Recall”), it’s wonderful to see the “Breaking Bad” star make an impact here as Mendez’s boss and biggest fan. While Arkin and Goodman get most of the showy laughs, Cranston’s humor is elegant and beneficial.
The high-quality cast Affleck surrounds himself with are the reason that the characters perform and balance so well. “The Six” could’ve been empty MacGuffins, but a smart collection of familiar-face actors - Christopher Denham (“Sound of My Voice”), Clea DuVall (“Zodiac”), Tate Donovan (“Damages”), Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused”), Kerry Bishé (“Red State”) - manage to turn each member of the imperiled half dozen into someone worth caring about. Scoot McNairy ( “Killing Them Softly”) makes a considerable impression as Joe Stafford, the voice of the group who is at odds with Tony’s crazy plan.
From the very first frame, “Argo” is a tighten and fascinating ride - although we inevitably know the ending before it even begins. “Argo” moves deftly from the diplomats’ claustrophobic quagmire to the spies’ D.C. offices to Hollywood backlots. A wry screenplay, by Chris Terrio, keeps things on parallel tracks, but in focus.
Affleck and company leave no stone unturned in “Argo.” While they take inspiring license with real events in order to ratchet up the drama and tension, the attention paid to authenticity is a treat. From the facial hair, TV sets and furniture to the robotic 2-XL 8-track player in Tony’s son’s room, watching “Argo” is like peering through a window at 1980.
For enthusiasts of the thriller genre “Argo” is a must-see, and is an all-around quality time at the movies for the mature crowd. The film fulfills its promise of being advantageous genre entertainment, no more, no less, and gets boosted by a good cast, decent script, and the luck of timing.
Jane Doe writes from the American South East.
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