When Antonio Mendez and Jack O’Donnell go to the heads of the CIA to present the final form of their plan for rescuing six people who have escaped from a captured US embassy and are living with a Canadian ambassador, the CIA heads ask them if they could have come up with a better bad idea. Jack O’Donnell’s response is that “This is the best bad idea by far.”
The idea is verging on ridiculous: Antonio Mendez will set up a movie production company in Los Angeles with the help of two industry professional, go into Iran, and then bring the six embassy workers out of the country pretending that they the members of a crew making a science-fiction movie called “Argo”. Were the 2012 film “Argo” not based on actual events I would probably label it as one of the most ridiculous thrillers I’ve ever seen; after all, the plot is the sort of ludicrous concept that only Hollywood could come up.
But “Argo” stays firmly planted in reality (even if it does fudge on some details), and manages to build tension and suspense with very little action.
John Goodman plays John Chambers, the man who won the Academy Award for best makeup design on “The Planet of the Apes”, and did actually work as a makeup specialist for the CIA. Alan Arkin plays Lester Siegel, who seems to be based on a mish-mash of Hollywood producers and not just a singular person — in an interview on Good Morning America, Arkin said that he based his performance on Jack Warner.
Goodman and Arkin serve as a much-needed source of dark-humor throughout the film, but also serve the greater purpose of allowing the film’s (as I said) ridiculous plot to function. So instead of feeling like tacked-on comedy relief the two are given room to breath and move in the film and help it to function; instead of the film coming to a halt every time one of them says something funny, they manage to push the film forward and service the material. Ben Affleck, meanwhile, gives a strong performance as the lead, Antonio Mendez, and holds the film together while also being the main driving force behind the film’s progression.
But ultimately this is a thriller, and as such it should have moments that grab our attention and force us to pay attention out of suspense and pure tension; “Argo”, I am glad to say, delivers.
There are two key points in the film that crank the tension up to eleven; the first is when the six embassy workers and Antonio Mendez have to go on a pretend location scout in an Iranian market place; the second is when they are preparing to board the airplane and leave Iran.
That second scene also provides one of my favorite moments in the entire film: two security officers in the airport are being shown storyboards from the fake film the embassy workers are pretending to make; their faces light up when they see the storyboards, they are mesmerized by the images. Movies do have that effect on people.
Technically the film is very well-made. The photography is tight and convincing at taking us into the decade being depicted; the movie was shot on film and has a grainy grit to it, a look which distances it from the digital imagery we see in most modern films. The dated look of the film stock dates the film; an effective tool for putting us in this decade and in these events.
If I am to say anything negative about the film it would be the prologue, which is a series of storyboards which shift around the screen and set up the story. The look is different, it is very clean and doesn’t fit. Quite honestly the prologue looks very cheap.
Thankfully, however, the rest of the film is airtight, wonderfully photographed (reminiscent of Coppola’s “The Conversation”, maybe?), and features a splattering of strong performances across the board.
If you like political thrillers, suspense, and history (even if fudged on details), then you should check this one out. I’m giving “Argo” the highest recommendation possible. It is thrilling, stunning, ridiculous, and marvelously well-made. Check it out, it’s well worth the price of admission.
Based on the book “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History” by Antonio Mendez.
Here is the trailer on YouTube: