During the late seventies I recall being escorted off a British Airways flight while waiting for takeoff at JFK airport. It wasn’t just me, it was everyone on the flight, and one by one we had to assemble in the waiting area for further instructions. At the time we had no clue what was going on, but we soon found out. The Iranian revolution had literally just begun at that moment, and the authorities needed to question all passengers about final destinations and whether anyone on board had any kind of connection with Iran. Some time later, most passengers re-boarded the plane, though some were forced to remain. What happened to them I have no clue.
It was at that time that the story of Ben Affleck’s new – and allow me to say up front – masterful new drama/thriller Argo was setting in motion.
The true story was kept a secret for some time, but in 1996 the details surrounding the Argo rescue mission were finally declassified by President Clinton, and for the first time we learned of the six Americans who escaped the wrath of the Islamic militants who raided the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 other Americans hostage. The 6 Americans who escaped found sanctuary in the Canadian embassy and for awhile, no one knew they were there.
Argo is based on true events, meaning that despite the reality of what we’re watching, certain moments are either elaborated or simply added for dramatic effect. It doesn’t matter. The essence of the rescue mission is here, and even though we know the outcome, the film still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat biting your nails right up until that final fade out. It’s not designed as a crowd-pleaser in the traditional cinematic sense, but you’ll still leave the theatre with a sense of pride, relief, and most of all, satisfaction, and that’s something I haven’t felt from a film for some time.
Affleck has now made three films as a director and all three are works of sizeable merit, but with Argo he hits it right out of the park. It’s not simply a matter of making a film that tells a story that grips, he appears to have the smallest of details right. The look of the film, the grain of the color, the costumes, the hair; it’s everything that makes you feel as though you’ve unearthed something that was actually made in the late seventies. From the opening credits, including the dated Warner Brother’s logo of the seventies that bathed the screen in a glowing red, Affleck successfully brings the time back to realistic life. It’s impressive work.
Argo was the name given to a fictional film project. There really was a script called Argo, a piece of derivative science-fiction schlock, and it was never filmed, but it was used by the CIA as a cover to get an undercover operative Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) back into the country where he could pretend he was scouting locations for an overseas shoot. Bryan Cranston plays Affleck’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell. “If these guys die, they die badly,” O’Donnell states, emphasizing the need to get the hostages out of there, then adds: “Publicly.” With the force of the Hollywood publicity machine behind him to add to the authenticity of the fake project, Mendez flew to Iran.
From the casting, the performances, the sharp dialog which is often surprisingly funny, and the final fifteen minutes, director Affleck has crafted something special: Argo works on all fronts.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 120 minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)