Directed by: Ben Affleck
Premise: A dramatization of a CIA operation to rescue American diplomats from Iran after protesters stormed the American consulate in 1979.
What Works: Argo is a well-made thriller. This is like a heist film in that it is about a CIA operation to smuggle a group of people out of hostile territory. The film is based on a true story in which a CIA exfiltration expert devises a cover story in which the he is a Hollywood producer scouting locations in Iran and the diplomats are members of his crew. It is the kind of outlandish premise that only works if it is known to be based on historical fact and even then the filmmakers have beset themselves with a challenge to make this story credible. The filmmakers accomplish that by delving into the details of laying the groundwork of the cover story, including finding a script, establishing a production company, and using the media to create the illusion that this is an authentic production. In that, Argo is partly about the overlap of politics and entertainment and more broadly the overlap between illusion and reality. It is too much to say that this is a meta-text like Wag the Dog, but Argo is partially a lighthearted commentary on Hollywood filmmaking and that gives the picture some smarts and depth beyond its thriller qualities. One of the other outstanding elements of Argo is the way its design captures the look of the late 1970s and early 80s. This is present in the costumes and cultural artifacts of the time, which give Argo an authentic feel, but the filmmakers also make subtle cinematic choices that enhance the illusion of authenticity. The recreation of the sacking of the American embassy and other historical events are done in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from news footage of the time and that manages to make this film simultaneously vintage and contemporary. The story construction and editing of Argo are especially good. This is a movie with a lot of players and action that is literally spread across the globe but the filmmakers do a great job of balancing their time in each location, characterizing everyone enough so that their place in the story is clear, and crosscutting the action to illustrate how decisions made in one arena impact people in other places. Argo has several strong performances in its supporting cast, namely by Alan Arkin as a Hollywood producer and Scoot McNairy as one of the diplomats. Arkin brings his crotchety old man demeanor to the part and he brings a lot to what is a small role. McNairy also contributes a lot as a diplomat who is skeptical of the extraction plan and he leads the rest of the diplomatic cast in reacting to their situation. Argo also has a notable performance by Sheila Vand as an Iranian housekeeper who is aware of the diplomats’ status as fugitives. Her scenes have a lot going on underneath the surface and they are very important to the film as they provide a moment of insight into Iranian politics, demonstrating more nuance and sophistication than is allowed for by the footage of attacks on the American embassy.
What Doesn’t: Argo is a film about the American-Iranian conflict of the early 1980s and it is coming out at a time in which sensitivities between the countries are again tense. Argo is timely in that it is about a key moment in the ongoing relationship between Iran and the United States and in that respect is reflects both history and current events, but this is not a film about politics. Argo is an A-to-Z thriller so viewers looking for a story about the intricacies of the Iranian revolution or American foreign policy should not expect to find it here. That is not to diminish the achievement of Argo but to understand it and put it in perspective; Argo does not define the hostage crisis or the United States’ relationship with Iran any more than The Great Escape tells us anything substantive about World War II. That isn’t what the film is trying to do and viewers should resist the temptation to read into this film what isn’t there.
Bottom Line: Argo is a very impressive espionage thriller and the best directorial effort yet by Ben Affleck. This is not a deep political story but it is a thrilling one.
Episode: #413 (November 4, 2012)