No one is happier than me that Ben Affleck, after years of being a mockable Hollywood star and paparazzi fodder, reinvented himself into a respectable director of movies for grown-ups. All those jokes and accusations that Affleck was the lesser of the two Good Will Hunting guys pretty much lost all relevance once lightning struck twice with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Affleck’s authorial turn is up there with Robert Downey Jr.’s resurgence as one of the great career comebacks of recent years.
Argo, Affleck’s third outing as a director, takes place during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, where Iranians captured and held 52 Americans hostage after raiding the American Embassy in Tehran. But the film’s not about their plight. Our concern is the six Americans who managed to escape out the backdoor amidst the chaos and found themselves hiding out at the house of the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). Cut to the US, where Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a down-on-his-luck CIA exfiltration expert who’s called in to consult on the various plans the Agency is kicking around to get those six people stateside. Quite frankly, all of them are terrible. One involves giving them bikes and maps to get them to the Turkish border, 300 miles way.
But Mendez has an idea for an elaborate mission — the kind that’s impossible to believe anyone in the CIA approved — and enlists Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up a fake movie production and pass off the six errant Americans as members of a Canadian location scouting crew, with the ultimate goal of getting them out of Iran under the guise of not being Americans. This requires Chambers, Siegel and Mendez to go through the whole Hollywood rigamarole of picking a script, getting a poster and storyboards made up, promoting the project in magazines and even gathering a cast to do a table read — all to make the plan seem real to the world.
It’s a completely bonkers idea, but it’s a real-life mission that became declassified about 15 years ago. Wired ran an article about it that’s partially the basis for Argo — the other is Mendez’s own memoir Master of Disguise— and a read-through of the former reveals that Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio smooth over, streamline and otherwise fictionalize a lot of details. Gone is the needless background information about the abortive Lord of Light adaptation* with Jack Kirby designs that became the basis for the fake movie. Which may miff the nerds**, but it’s just easier to show the characters (including the apparently totally fictional Siegel) pulling a screenplay called Argo out of their myriad stacks and running with it. Never forget that storytelling is different from documenting. The “Based on a True Story” tag is a film showing its artistic license like a cop flashing his badge — it’s not about accurately portraying every single moment as it happened in real life; it’s about taking the elements presented and crafting a compelling story out of them.
And hell, the general public never knew the truth behind the mission until 1997 anyway.
Argo is one of those films where you know how the story ends, but the ride is so amazingly tense that knowledge of the outcome doesn’t really matter. It’s also where the fictionalized element shows its dramatic power. While Mendez and company fool the rest of Hollywood, the six Americans grow restless Canadian Ambassador’s house, while soldiers slowly put together that there are a handful of potential hostages missing and begin a manhunt and the Canadians’ Iranian maid starts to notice some subterfuge going on.
The tension only grows once Mendez makes it to Tehran and has mere days to get the Americans on his side, train them to pretend to be a Canadian film crew and take them out to do actual location scouting in broad daylight in heavily populated areas before sneaking them on a plane out of the country. Affleck and Terrio keep coming up with ways to make our hearts pound, whether it’s a member of the six who refuses to participate, a public argument with some locals in the Market or the Agency itself backing out on the plan. It’s “edge-of-your-seat” kind of viewing, proof that you can thrill a viewer without explosions and gunplay.
Which isn’t to say that Argo is all tension and no relief — that’d be ill-advised for a film about pulling off one what’s likely the most ludicrous and risky capers in CIA history. Actually, Chris Terrio’s script is quite funny, with snappy dialogue — which maybe should be a necessity if your film involves scenes of people in suits talking in meeting rooms about the plot — and much-needed moments of levity. In both respects, the Hollywood sections of the film are a major highlight, with Alan Aarkin as the film’s MVP — the crabby, sardonic producer who ends up coining the film’s major catchphrase.
We’re starting to dip our toes into prestige picture season, the part of the year where studios start rolling out movies they hope will garner accolades — which means a lot of obvious Oscar bait and period dramas. Argo is indeed a period drama that will certainly (and deservedly) grab some award nominations, but it’s also easily one of the best dramas of the year. Going beyond a story well told, more than an exercise in dramatizing a notable testing of Murphy’s Law, Argo is a legitimately great movie that isn’t afraid to also entertain.
*Judd Ehrlich is making a documentary about this bit of background, which really deserves a separate non-fiction focus on it — a would-be producer named Barry Geller wanted to make an adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and enlisted Jack Kirby to design sets that would have become basis for a theme park called “Science Fiction Land” after production was over. And it all almost really happened for real. Just imagine — a Jack Kirby theme park almost existed.
**The story of Argo is actually pretty well known in the comics community for the Kirby element, which gets a nod with the brief inclusion of Michael Parks as a storyboard artist listed in the credits as Jack Kirby.