If you were ever told to rescue six hostages out of the most dangerous country in the world, how would you do it? Would you negotiate with the country’s leaders? Maybe. Would you send the military over to defend them and pull them out? Possibly. Or would you create a fake movie and have the hostages fly out of the country as a film crew? Probably not. Well, guess what. That’s exactly what the CIA (with the help of Canada) managed to pull off. Yeah, I know, it’s absurd. But it actually happened.
Back in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, the US Embassy was attacked by protesters and everybody in the embassy was under hostage, with the exception of six people. These six people escaped and hid in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Both the CIA and the Iranian government are aware of this, and the CIA must think up of a plan to rescue these six Americans. This leads to CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), film producer Leslie Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to thinking up of an absolutely ridiculous and risky plan. Their plan is to fabricate a science fiction film called Argo. They commission a screenplay, create storyboards, cast actors and buy an ad in Variety magazine to give the fake film some legitimacy. Their cover for being in Iran is that they need filming locations. From there on, the film becomes a pure thrill ride of trying to escape Iran.
Even before Argo, Ben Affleck has proven himself as a highly capable director. His two previous films Gone Baby Gone and The Town are both riveting thrillers although there thematic content lacks any real depth. The “film within a film” setup and the rich humor of Argo both make the film unexpectedly compelling and enjoyable to watch. Affleck also does a magnificent job at building suspense and tension as the film progresses. Screenwriter Chris Terrio does a great job of adding life to the dialogue to keep the audience from falling asleep. I feel like Ben Affleck added some commentary on the condition of Hollywood, criticizing the mindset of Hollywood producers and how Hollywood stars try to act like “big shots” even if they’re not. This hidden message of the film was especially well-handled because of Affleck’s position as a star, which leads me to my next point.
Affleck has never really impressed me in terms of his acting since he mostly chose cheap Hollywood paycheck roles and never fleshed out any depth as an actor. His performance in Argo completely changed that. What surprised me the most was the subtlety in his performance. Many actors would have a tendency to play heroic roles with a sense of extreme self-righteousness and pride but Affleck refrains from falling into that hole. He is so subdued in the way that he portrays the emotional stress of Tony Mendez that it doesn’t feel showy at all, which is probably why he was ignored by most awards for his performance. I think that his performance is certainly Oscar worthy.
The supporting performances in Argo are also all outstanding. Bryan Cranston plays as the CIA Chief who greenlit Mendez’s plan and is just simply amazing. It has almost become a cliché to say that Bryan Cranston gives a good performance because he is pretty much great in anything. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are fantastic and completely steal the show whenever they are onscreen. If I had only seen the scenes involving John Goodman and Alan Arkin’s characters, then I would have mistaken Argo for a comedy. They’re that funny.
My main problem with Argo is with the lack of development for minor characters and the Mendez family subplot. Each of the six American escapees feel just like MacGuffins. They aren’t forgotten at the end of the film but they lack any real personality to feel like anything more than just a plot device. All we get to know about them is a brief introduction during a mission brief scene at the beginning of the film. The film sometimes tries to interweave Mendez’s family into the plot in order for us to build sympathy for Mendez but it comes off as distracting and doesn’t add anything to the character of Tony Mendez.
Aside from those issues, Argo is a spellbinding and thoughtful thriller with seamless direction, amazing performances and even some well-written humor. The filmmaking behind Argo is rare amongst thrillers. I love thrillers myself but I feel like not enough of them are made with care. Many directors use the shortcut of just assembling gunfights and chases to form a “thriller”. Affleck didn’t go cheap and uses perfect timing and anxious situations to build dramatic tension. The film becomes so intense that its flaws almost fade to the background. I am giving Argo and A.
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