Cinema undeniably yields a great power. After all, there are those who speak of how a movie (or movies) changed their lives. Now, who ever could have guessed that the motion picture is capable of directly saving lives as well? That’s the story behind “Argo,” an effective and well-crafted thriller guaranteed to have you holding your breath.
Based on a true story, the film opens in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, where angry militants storm and seize the U.S. embassy, holding 50 Americans hostage. In the midst of the takeover, six embassy workers escape unnoticed and find refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home.
A few months later, the U.S. State Department and CIA wants to extract the hostages. CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) develops an audacious plan.
With the help of Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Mendez forms a fake production company for a cheesy sci-fi flick called “Argo,” for which the six Americans play a Canadian location scouting team. Mendez, himself pretending to be the movie’s producer, flies into Tehran to train the Americans to assume their Hollywood roles in order to fly out of the country, all while the Iranians are close to realizing that not all of the embassy staff are accounted for.
With “Argo” being Affleck’s third directorial feature, it’s difficult to not be impressed by the way he approaches and handles the material. You know you’re in for something special the moment the film begins, as an inventive combination of storyboards and archival footage is used to provide historical background leading up to the Iran hostage crisis.
Though the film is first and foremost a thriller, Affleck offers plenty of room for humor, which is more often than not found in the Hollywood scenes, as Mendez, Chambers and Siegel go about their business developing their fake movie and keeping their (also fake) production company afloat. Hollywood culture is richly satirized, thanks to Goodman and Arkin’s superb performances, with the latter barking plenty of comical one-liners.
Balancing out the humor is the tension, which is exquisitely maintained throughout. You feel the exact same emotions as the characters, whether it be during the embassy takeover sequence, the anxiety-ridden moments inside the Canadian ambassador’s home or —– of course —– the film’s third act, when the exfiltration plan is finally put into nail-biting motion and twists and turns aplenty await. As opposed to creating tension out of chases and gunfire, Affleck masterfully builds it on timing, the cast’s terrific performances and the theoretical, horrible outcome that would result should Mendez and the six “houseguests” be caught.
From a storytelling standpoint, “Argo” deals its cards right and comes out a winner. Though character development does take a backseat, it is made up for by the mood that is evoked from these scenes, which really intensify the viewing experience if you undergo the same emotions and thoughts that are running through the characters’ heads.
What makes the film feel so authentic is the recreation of 1979-1980 Iran. The production design is quite extraordinary, as several scenes are eerily similar to those caught in photographs from that time period. Sound design plays an important role, as angry chants and yells from Iranian crowds amplify the already fine line of tension.
“Argo” delivers the goods in a breathtaking and simple manner. It takes a ludicrous story and makes it so compelling, finds a comfortable yet distinct balance between humor and tension and finally, feels so confident in itself. That last part is the sign of a damn fine film.
Rating: 4 out of 5