Set in 1979, when an American embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranians, but six embassy officials (Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, and Scoot McNairy among them) managed to escape and were housed in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). The CIA are tasked with the mission of getting them out of harm’s way, and CIA man Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the most cockamamie way of getting them out; Pretending that the six are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi epic called “Argo”! To make the ruse more convincing, he hires real-life Oscar-winning makeup man John Chambers (played by John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (a composite character played by Alan Arkin). Well, that sounds like a can’t fail plan, right? Actually, it sounds completely insane. Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s CIA boss, and Michael Parks plays storyboard artist (and co-creator of comic book characters like Iron Man and The Hulk) Jack Kirby.
Director-star Ben Affleck (who made a helluva directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone”) makes up for his somewhat disappointingly safe and clichéd “The Town” with this extraordinary ‘true story’ tale from 2012, set in the late 70s. Engrossing from start to finish, it’s probably Affleck’s best film to date as director (sad that he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, but winning the Best Picture Oscar probably made up for it a bit), albeit a bit generous towards the Carter administration for some people’s liking. Debate continues as to whether Carter was a hero or a blunderer here, or whether Reagan was a hero or a manipulative opportunist, and it seems to depend on your own political bias as to who or what you believe, so I won’t even offer any opinions on that, as a non-American born in 1980. I have no idea how accurate it is to the truth (although I have heard that the film beefs up the American intervention to the downgrading of the supposedly more important Canadian involvement), all I know is that this is fascinating, completely bizarre stuff.
In some ways it harkens back to films of the 70s, having a docudrama or Altman-esque feel to it, maybe even “All the President’s Men” (which indeed Affleck was supposedly influenced by). And yet, for a film that echoes movies of the 70s (right down to the red, black and white Warner Brothers logo designed by the great Saul Bass) about events from the late 70s and early 80s, this sure feels real and modern (The kind of thing you might expect George Clooney to direct). There’s a good usage of TV news footage too, and you’ll recognise practically all of the TV anchors, even if you’re a non-American like me.
Ben Affleck himself is rock-solid (and boy is there some spectacular facial hair in this film), and Scoot McNairy seemed to have a terrific year in 2012 with solid roles in this and “Killing Them Softly”. More entertaining, however, are the turns by John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Bryan Cranston. Cranston, in particular is really good at the war room ‘talking heads’-type stuff, alongside Zjelko Ivanek and Affleck’s favourite actor Titus Welliver. Cranston is a damn fine actor in the right role, he was great on “Malcolm in the Middle”, a show people tend to forget now that everyone seems to love “Breaking Bad”. Goodman doesn’t get a lot of scenes, but he truly is the icing on the cake, as John Chambers the makeup man responsible for the still interesting makeup for the 1968 “Planet of the Apes”. I had no idea that Chambers was involved in this real-life event prior to the film being made. You really can’t make this stuff up, folks. Once Chambers turns up, the film really takes off, but then Alan Arkin turns up and you just feel all warm and happy inside. Honestly, Arkin has done all of his best work in the last 15 years or so and he gets some great dialogue here (‘You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!’). Cranston probably has my favourite line in the entire film, however; ‘This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far’. I really hope that line is true, because it’s hilarious. In a film that seems to contain just about every working American or Canadian actor/actress, look out for former John Carpenter muse Adrienne Barbeau as a sci-fi actress, Michael Parks interestingly cast as a storyboard artist, and in a casting decision presumably suggested by Mrs. Affleck, Canadian character actor Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador.
It may not be the most factually accurate account of the story (apparently the rescue was fairly mundane in reality), but all I really care about is that this is highly entertaining stuff, and one of the ten best films of the year. I must admit though, I kinda wanna see the space opera “Argo” get made now. The screenplay by Chris Terrio is based on a magazine article by Joshuah Bearman and a book by the real Antonio (Tony) Mendez.