Argo (United States, 2012)

October 10, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Argo Poster

Argo proudly bears the "based on a true story" label, and this is one occasion when the caption is important to how the movie is perceived. Often, this is a meaningless citation but, when documenting historical events such as the ones depicted herein, even when a degree of fictionalization occurs, the real life tie-in can add flavor and texture to the way the narrative is viewed. On the surface, Argo is a compelling espionage-tinged/race-against-time thriller set in 1980 Iran. Recognizing that many of the movie's elements are lifted from actual events elevates the importance of what the movie has to say.

The screenplay, written by Chris Terrio, uses Joshuah Bearman's 2007 Wired article, "Escape from Tehran: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran," as the basis for this cinematic interpretation. It takes the basic events and tweaks them to be more cinematic. In particular, the suspense inherent in the last act is ratcheted up by using multiple instances of cross-cutting to show how things fall in place in the nick of time. Although things were tense in the real world, there weren't as many "just barely made it" moments. That's a Hollywood innovation, but it works to get the adrenaline pumping. The final 30 minutes of Argo crackle with tension.

Ben Affleck has, by this point, shown himself to be a better director than actor. Not that he's a bad actor, but he's very good behind the camera. Argo joins Gone Baby Gone and The Town as examples of expertly crafted genre pieces. Of the three, Argo has the least compelling emotional content (none of the characters are well developed, although perfunctory attempts are made to show the importance of family to Affleck's Tony Mendez) but the largest overall narrative scope. Affleck went to some effort to make Argo look like it was shot in the '70s. Not only is the picture intentionally grainy but the old Warner Brothers logo is used at the start. The recreation of Tehran circa 1980 is expert (the location work was done in Turkey). Archival footage is used to put President Carter, the Shah, and Ayatollah Khomeini into the story; old news footage of Ted Koppel, Frank Robinson, Mike Wallace, and Walter Cronkite adds additional flavor of the period.

Argo opens with a compelling re-creation of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran by militant students. It's November 4, 1979 and the world is about to change. As civilians enter the compound, first in a trickle then, once the gates are forced open, in droves, employees and diplomats rush to shred and incinerate all sensitive material. Six of them - Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), and Joe and Kathy Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe) - escape and make it to the residence of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), where they are hidden away for nearly 90 days.

The State Department, helped by the CIA, decides to mount a rescue mission. By mid-January, concerns are rising that, if the diplomats aren't smuggled out of Iran, they may be captured and publicly executed. The Canadian government, concerned about the safety of the ambassador and his staff, is also applying pressure. CIA director Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) calls in agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration expert, to devise a plan to get the six people out. The key problem is that there is no viable reason why a half-dozen North Americans would be wandering Tehran in this political climate. Mendez's scheme is audacious. With the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Tony establishes a fake production company for a cheesy sci-fi movie called Argo and devises a cover story for the trapped Americans that will hopefully allow them to pass through security at the airport and board a Swiss Air flight: they are scouting locations in Iran for their movie. But what seems plausible and straightforward on paper rarely works that way in practice.

The crisp pacing of Affleck's direction allows Argo to feel shorter than its 120-minute running time. The movie is exciting without resorting to the standard techniques and clich├ęs often encountered in spy thrillers. There are no shootouts, fist fights, or explosions. All the suspense derives from the implication of what could happen if the characters are caught. There is an ever-present sense of danger. Affleck breaks the tension by occasionally cutting to Hollywood where Chambers and Siegel provide a few lighthearted moments (although their final scene is used to escalate the stakes during the climax).

For the most part, Affleck has chosen low-profile actors to fill the primary roles. This is effective since it adds to the verisimilitude. Affleck, with long, shaggy hair and a beard, is almost unrecognizable. His performance is curiously muted with his character showing little in the way of emotion. This is almost certainly intentional since a less calculating figure might have been overwhelmed by the circumstances. The supporting cast is excellent, with Bryan Cranston having some great scenes as Mendez's (fictionalized) boss and the duo of Goodman and Arkin making us wonder if they could spin off in a sit-com.

Regarding the film's MPAA rating: the only reason Argo has been slapped with a R-rating is because the word "fuck" is used multiple times as part of a running gag ("Argo fuck yourself"). Aside from what is mild and relatively inoffensive profanity, there is nothing "inappropriate" for teenagers in this movie but, because of the archaic views of the MPAA, anyone under the age of 17 who wants to see Argo will have to buy a ticket to something else and sneak in. Kudos to the filmmakers for not compromising and making the minor cuts necessary to get a PG-13. Shame on the MPAA for not being flexible.

Argo contains many elements that may make it an Oscar contender. It's a compelling story that keeps viewers on the edges of their seats while delivering the goods. It's based on real events. It's directed with flair and style by an admired actor-director. And the period recreation is impeccable. A lot of movies take us back to the late '70s/early '80s, but few have done it so forcefully and with so little application of kitsch. Argo is a good movie. More than that, it's a smart good movie - something to savor in the early days leading up to the end-of-the-year cinematic feast.

Argo (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1