Firing on all cylinders, Argo is a tense thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat even if you know how the true story plays out.
On November 4, 1979 tensions in Iran reached a boiling point which led to an Iranian take over of the American Embassy in Tehran and made the diplomats working in the building into hostages. Six people escaped to the streets during the take over and hid out in the home of a Canadian ambassador. The longer they stayed, however, the more danger they were in as eventually the Iranians would figure out they were missing and find them. The Canadians were getting ready to shut down their embassy and bring the ambassador home so something had to be done. The State Department started to try to come up with plans to smuggle the six out. Toward this end, they brought in CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendes (Ben Affleck) as a consultant. After a litany of terrible ideas, Mendes comes up with a slightly less terrible idea which involves Mendes posing as a Canadian film producer in Iran to scout locations for the fake film Argo and bring the six out as his film crew. In order to do this, the movie has to be fabricated down to table reads, press and promotional materials.
It is hard to highlight any one thing about Argo that makes it so good because everything about it works and works very well. The pacing is perfect, the humor is appropriate and hits its mark, the huge ensemble cast is incredible, the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife and the production values are amazing. I don’t want to descend into hyperbole but this movie is an incredible achivement of writing, directing and performance.
The tension the movie builds is pretty special right off the top because this is a true event that many audience members will be familiar with going into the theater. A problem that crops up with this kind of movie is that some times the tension is undercut by the audience knowing how it turns out before hand. Here, director Ben Affleck manages to completely avoid this by ratcheting up the tension through lingering moments of looks and body language that goes a long way to extend the tension and really keep the audience in a vice like grip. In my screening you could hear people getting more frantic as the movie goes on and the feeling was palpable in the room.
The ensemble cast is pretty huge here and everyone does an amazing job. Ben Affleck does a terrific job directing himself and giving us a character who has a lot of weight on his shoulders and understands how dangerous what he is about to do is but has the courage to do it anyway. Bryan Cranston turns in another great performance as Jack O’Donnel, Mendes’s boss at the CIA who backs Mendes and delivers some incredibly funny lines. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are both terrific as a make up artist and producer respectively who help make Argo look legit. Arkin, in particular, steals almost every scene he is in and is a delight to watch. Victor Garber plays Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who takes the six in, and does so with generosity and fear and it strikes the perfect balance for someone risking everything to do what is right. Rory Cochorane, Clea Duval and Tate Donovan are standouts in the escaped six but Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishe are terrific as well. Even the smaller roles are cast with people you will recognize if you don’t know them by name like Titus Welliver, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Michael Parks, Kieth Szarabajka, Tom Lenk and that is just the tip of the ice berg. Filling this movie with actors of this caliber just servers to elevate it overall and for the tension here to work we really needed to believe it.
For a movie with this level of drama and tension it doesn’t necessary follow that it would be as funny as it is but director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio understand that when you ratchet the suspense up this high you have to relieve the pressure or it will be unbearable. This is done very effectively throughout the movie and does what it is supposed to very well. It also goes a long way toward endearing the audience to the characters.
That sense of caring and concern is really one of the most important elements at play here. If you stop giving a shit what happens to the people involved then the whole thing deflates like a helium balloon. That is true of any movie of course but here it is especially important as the film doesn’t rely on spectacle to get through but rather on human relationships and interactions.
Another thing that went a long way toward making the film feel real was that Affleck went out of his way to not only make the costumes and locations look authentically period but he also shot on film and used techniques to increase the graininess to make the film look more from the 70′s. This is kind of uncanny and you feel like you are not just watching a movie taking place in the 70′s but also a film made in the 70′s. Apparently Affleck seemed to draw inspiration from films like All the President’s Men to enhance the feelings of urgency and tension in the CIA sequences.
Conclusion [10 out of 10]
Argo is a very precise movie and is extremely well made from top to bottom. If it got only half of its elements right it would still be a best picture contender. As it is, it is an incredible achievement and more proof that Ben Affleck is a terrific director. The man went through some tough times in the business for awhile but if it put him in a position to make movies like this and his two previous films Gone Baby Gone and the Town, then I think it must have been worth it. He has become a reason for me to see a movie if his name is attached to direct and I think it is time he be recognized for his skills. Argo is a great movie and will be on a lot of top 10 lists this year. It should also be on a lot of best picture and best director nomination lists as well. See this right away if you love historical dramas, tense thrillers or truly great movies.