Every now and then there comes a story so preposterous and incredible that you know it has to be true; no Hollywood screenwriter could have come up with it. Ben Affleck’s new film, in which he stars and directed, is one of those cases. The film opens with an animated intro covering the events that led to the Iranian Revolution; “This is the land of The Persian Empire”, it begins - as if this were going to be a large fantasy epic. But Argo is no fantasy and the film is ten times more gripping because of it.
Like most average movie goers, I am not particularly fond of modern day political thrillers. They involve a lot of characters sitting around, discussing “stuff” in complex jargon as if they were playing chess. Even the acclaimed Syriana was a bit of a bore. There is some chess playing in Argo but it is mostly for a set characters to pass the time; most of the film is all show business.
The set up is simple, and you probably already know; in 1979, during the Iranian Revolution the American embassy was raided by revolutionary forces. Most of its employees were taken hostage and held for ransom. Six of them escaped and found refuge in the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber)’s house. There they wait, until the US sends someone to rescue them, the Iranian authorities find them, or the ambassador decides he is taking too big a risk and kicks them out. Back in Washington, the CIA concocts a plan to get them out.
They will send in an extractor, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), posing to be a Canadian Film Producer claiming that him and his crew were in Iran scouting locations for a new science fiction film. The “fake crew” will consist of the six hostages, who with new Canadian identities will be able to board a plane out of Tehran without anyone knowing the better. And who would, when a film production rolls into town everyone is always too excited to notice someone sneaking out the backdoor.
It is a cockamamie scheme, and the first to raise an eyebrow are the heads in Washington believing high profile fake identities are never a good idea when you want to smuggle someone out of a hostile country. But Mendez finds two allies in Hollywood willing to cooperate: a producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), who has experience producing fake movies to taunt rival studios, and a make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who wouldn’t mind having a hand in production even if it is a fake production. Together with Mendez, they will buy an ad in Variety, set up a fake green-light party in the rooftop of the Beverly Hilton; if they can get Hollywood excited about a fake movie, Teheran is bound to hear about it. Unlike Washington, if Hollywood is going to do a fake movie, they are going to make sure its good; there are too many bad real movies out there to make the fake ones bad.
The film is spellbinding as any thriller, and yet not a single gun is shot by the CIA team, or the Iranian guards who could have identified them. This is what real life secret agent work is like, if anyone fires a gun it means their cover has been blown, the mission compromised, and most importantly that they suck at their job.
To be able to craft a thriller without chases and gunfire goes to show that Ben Affleck is a talented filmmaker, and that The Town was not just a lucky strike. Yes, his acting is certainly not the best, nor the highlight of this film, but the man has talent elsewhere. Thankfully, in Argo, he supports his acting with a brilliant supporting cast. Arkin and Goodman are at their best, as Hollywood producers safely lounging by the poolside, while they know everything that is happening in Iran. Victor Garber also does a great job as the friendly Canadian ambassador, who welcomes the refugees at a great risk for himself.
I guess the movie has something to say about how people fail to notice the obvious when the stage lights are shining; one of the best moments involves a man in the bazaar giddily asking the frightened fake crew if the movie they are filming is a “foreign bride” movie; I guess the man often dreams about meeting his “foreign bride” that looks like a Hollywood star. Personally, I didn’t take much in terms of depth. This is just a good story, brilliantly crafted, that I would highly recommend. But deep down it is still a Hollywood thriller, but there is nothing wrong with that.