Movie Review by Michael Arruda
BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) helped free American hostages from Iran back in 1980. Who knew!
That’s just one revelation found in Ben Affleck’s fascinating new thriller, ARGO (2012), a riveting film that tells the improbable tale— based on a true story— of how the U.S. government funded a fake movie in order to rescue six American government workers from Iran in 1980.
ARGO gets off to a strong start. The film opens as an angry Iranian mob storms the American embassy in Iran, an event which led to American hostages being held for an incredible 444 days. During these tense moments, six American government workers simply walk out the back door onto the streets of Iran and make their way to the Canadian embassy, where they’re taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).
When U.S. authorities fail to devise an effective escape plan for getting these six Americans safely out of Iran, enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) a CIA operative whose expertise is getting people out of harm’s way. Stuck for ideas, Mendez happens to catch the science fiction movie BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES on television, and as he watches Caesar and his friends walk along the futuristic desert landscape, a light bulb goes off in his head.
Mendez presents the idea to his superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) that he’ll go into Iran pretending to be a Hollywood film producer making a science fiction film, under the pretense that he wants to use Iran for scenes of an alien world. He’ll disguise the six hostages as a film crew, and together they’ll simply walk out of Iran.
It’s a far-fetched idea to be sure, but there just aren’t any others that would work, which prompts O’Donnell to tell his superiors “It’s the best bad idea we have.” To make it work, Mendez visits his friend in Hollywood, John Chambers (John Goodman), the Academy Award winning make-up artist for the PLANET OF THE APES franchise. Chambers agrees to help Mendez, their goal being to make their fake movie as realistic as possible, because they know the Iranians will be checking their facts. Chambers hooks Mendez up with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, in yet another scene-stealing performance) who goes all out because, as he says, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, then it’s going to be a fake hit!”
They settle upon a bad science fiction script for a movie called ARGO, and they even go so far as to hold a press conference where they read through the script, all in attempt to get their film in the Hollywood trade papers to make their fake film as credible as possible.
Mendez travels to Iran to prep the hostages and give them their fake film crew identities. Things grow more complicated when the Iranians figure out that six hostages are missing, and soon they’re closing in on their location, giving Mendez very little time to make his plan work.
Directed by Ben Affleck, ARGO isn’t quite as intense as his previous directorial efforts THE TOWN (2012) and GONE BABY GONE (2007), but it is more balanced. It has a suspenseful beginning and end, and sandwiched in the middle is the highly entertaining tale of the making of the fake movie. As a result, in addition to being a competent thriller, ARGO is also quirky and funny.
The screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman, is a winner. It’s full of hilarious film business jokes and one-liners, most of them by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. But it’s also incredibly tense, especially its ending, where Mendez and the hostages have the improbable task of making their way to the Iranian airport, getting past the soldiers, with only their outlandish story to get them through.
The script also does a nice job reminding us how we got into the hostage crisis in the first place, as it gives us some history, how the United States backed the Shah of Iran, how the Shah committed many brutal crimes against the Iranian people, and the event which caused the crisis, when the ill Shah received political asylum from the United States. The script does this without being preachy.
The acting is terrific. Ben Affleck is solid as Tony Mendez, in an understated performance. Sure, at times it looks as if Affleck is a wink away from falling asleep, as he always seems to be squinting, but that’s because Mendez is one cool customer. Some of the confrontations would make most people wet themselves or worse, but Affleck’s Mendez is rock solid, providing a firm, steady hand as he guides the hostages through the tumultuous streets of America-hating Iran.
Both John Goodman and Alan Arkin steal the show in their supporting roles as John Chambers and Lester Siegel. It’s nothing we haven’t seen these guys do before, but they’re so good at it. In a movie as tense as this, their sharp-tongued comedic turns are a welcome relief. And Bryan Cranston is excellent once again, this time playing Mendez’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell. Once more, Cranston looks completely different. He seems to change his look in every movie he’s in.
The performances of the six hostages are also top-notch, and Victor Garber is also very good as Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador.
The film also successfully captures the feel of 1979-80, as the clothes, hairstyles, and soundtrack all heavily reflect the era.
I’m hot and cold with Ben Affleck, and in recent years I’ve enjoyed him more, as I liked both THE TOWN and GONE BABY GONE. I also really enjoyed his performance as George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006). These recent successes have helped me forget films like DAREDEVIL (2003) and THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002).
With ARGO, Affleck hits a homerun from the director’s chair. The film is taut and exciting, and in its final act, extremely suspenseful. Affleck also does a nice job in the lead role, although his directorial effort is certainly more potent than his performance as cool headed Tony Mendez.
For those of us who lived through the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1980, ARGO serves as a reminder of a difficult and painful year in our history.
ARGO is a nerve-racking drama that will thrill you as well as make you laugh with its quirky Hollywood subplot.
I give it three and a half knives.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives ARGO ~three and a half knives.