This is what I do and I’ve never left anybody behind.
So says Tony Mendez (a wonderfully understated Ben Affleck once more doing double duty as actor and director) the main protagonist and hero of Argo. Mendez is trying to sell his bosses on the idea of bankrolling a fake Hollywood production company to do a fake cheesy sci-fi film, (the titular Argo) as a last ditch effort to rescue six members of the Foreign Office who during the Iranian hostage crisis sought sanctuary in the home of the Canadian ambassador after the British and New Zealand embassies turned them away. In order to leave Iran safely they’ll need a cover story for why they’re there which, thanks to the political turmoil, is hard to come by. (Teachers and NGO workers having all since long fled the country.)
Mendez plans to pass the six U.S. diplomats off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting out Iran as a possible location shoot. He points out everyone knows that Hollywood would make a deal with Pol Pot to make a hit movie. To make the charade convincing, he enlists an actual Hollywood producer, (Alan Arkin doing what he does best) and make-up artist, John Chambers (John Goodman) to help him. Mendez meets Chambers as the latter is making up a man as a minotaur on a fantastically corny film set. The film’s Hollywood moments are absolutely hysterical compared to the deadly suspense that takes hold whenever the action shifts to Tehran. They hold a publicity party with auditions for their non-existent movie and even get written up in trade magazines. It is of course absolutely ludicrous, but it’s all true.
Yes, all this really happened. It really did. Never losing sight of the fact, Affleck makes the daring choice to film the whole thing as realistically as possible. The film begins with an introduction describing the decades of history that led up to the hostage crisis. Everything explodes as the embassy is stormed and the Americans are taken prisoner in a sequence that’s truly frightening.
The movie showcases a small but terrifying sample of the torments the hostages endured. While the six hiding out at the embassy aren’t being subjected to mock executions, they’re in a state of constant panic knowing that at any moment they could be found and killed. So could Ambassador Taylor (Victor Garber) and his wife as well for harboring “fugitives.” They have to leave and sooner rather than later. In one surreal moment Mendez, arriving in Iran, passes by both a KFC outlet and then a corpse hung by the neck from a moving crane.
Newcomer Scoot McNairy as one of the hostages is particularly effective as a man wracked not only by fear but also guilt; he convinced his wife to stay in Iran after the riots broke out when she begged them to leave. Of the six, he’s the most openly skeptical of Mendez’s plan; and yet in one crucial sequence, he’s the one who most effectively sells the cover story by seeming himself for a moment to believe in it.
Argo the fake movie may have been pure B-rated silliness but the actual movie Argo is purest craftsmanship at its finest. Affleck has assembled a tremendous ensemble cast, the script is razor sharp, and the 70’s style camera work is gorgeous without being overpowering. Affleck as Mendez is mesmerizing with sad, serious eyes, and a world weary manner. Tony Mendez is a man with a problematic personal life that the movie is thankfully discreet about (he’s separated from his wife and son, and he seems to have a drink in hand in every shot), but with an overwhelming sense of personal duty and responsibility as is shown in the movie’s climax. It’s definitely the best work Affleck’s done in years and combined with his masterful direction as well, Argo represents the best artistic achievement yet of his career as well as the first real contender this fall for the Best Picture Oscar.