For a story about political revolution, covert operations and a daring rescue, Argo is a surprisingly humble movie. It shows the CIA coming up with a series of laughably bad ideas to save a handful of American prisoners, before they settle on the “best bad idea” they have. It focuses on a hero who only occasionally seems sure of what he’s doing. And it contains a pretty hilarious Hollywood-set subplot featuring John Goodman and Alan Arkin.
That might sound like a puzzling combination for an espionage movie, but it allows Argo to be more of a human drama than an amped-up thriller. For that, we can thank director (and star) Ben Affleck, who has been on a winning streak since his 2007 directorial debut Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town. Argo is an engaging, timely film that knows when to wind you up and when to let you laugh. And it’s that steady hand that could turn Argo into Ben Affleck’s next Oscar.
The film opens at the height of the 1979 Iranian revolution, as the American embassy is overrun by protesters. Angry that their exiled monarch was welcomed into the United States, the Iranians capture most of the diplomats inside, while six Americans escape out a back door. The group finds refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house, and the American government is left to try and smuggle them out of the country.
The CIA has few options – the Revolutionary Guard will arrest and possibly execute any Americans found in Tehran. So the agency brings in their best extraction man, Tony Mendez (Affleck) to help. Mendez shoots down the plans proposed by his superiors, and comes up with a crazy caper of his own. He sets up a fake film company, and plans to fly into Tehran as a Canadian film producer picking up his crew from a location scout for a sci-fi movie.
As a final kicker, it’s all based on real events. If it weren’t, I think we’d be asking for our money back, complaining about the implausible story.
But one of the best parts of Argo is how openly it embraces the “too crazy to be fake” nature of Mendez’s plan. The wheeling and dealing he does in Hollywood with executive producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) provides a delightful diversion from the grim situation in Iran. When we shift locations to Iran, the tone changes to suit the setting, but there are no illusions that the rescue plan is just as silly and dangerous as it was before.
Maybe that’s why we’re drawn into the tense, step-by-step process of getting the American fugitives to the airport - even though anyone with Internet access knows they all make it out alive. Argo doesn’t play anyone for fools: not the Iranians trying to capture the Americans, not the frightened fugitives, and most importantly, not the audience. The revolutionaries are rightly suspicious, the fugitives are understandably cautious, and we’re left to admire how much care went into making this film.
That holds true for almost the entire runtime. In the third act, just as the fugitives board the Swissair flight destined to take them to safety, Affleck decides to boost the action. He turns the jumbo jet’s journey down the runway into an all-out chase with trucks filled with soldiers. It was a bit much for me, a sequence that felt like it was left in for good measure, rather than belonging in the story. It’s far from a deal-breaker, but it’s one implausibility too many.
Even so, Argo remains an intelligent, accessible spy movie with a decent dash of humour, and it gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Argo? Did you like how it blended real-life espionage with laughs? How do you feel about Ben Affleck as a director? Join the conversation in the comments section. If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and check out some of my recent movies reviews here:
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