This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack ODonnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
Watching the unfolding drama of Argo, the story seems too improbable to be true.
This real-life account of the daring rescue of six Americans in hiding at the home of the Canadian Embassy ambassador in Iran during the hostage crisis in Tehran has only-in-Hollywood written all over it:
How the CIA hatched a scheme to use a fictitious movie production as a cover to sneak the Americans out of the hostile nation.
How Hollywood filmmakers were employed to help them pull it off.
How the plug was almost pulled on the rescue days before it occurred.
How these six entrusted their lives to a stranger with a rescue plan fraught with potential disaster at almost every step.
And most improbably, how no one knew the full details of this daring extraction until a 2007 Wired article published decades after the CIA operation.
Working from Chris Terrio's script, Ben Affleck has strong dramatic material at his disposal as Argo's director, his third directorial effort and his most assured work behind the camera. Showing his maturity as a filmmaker, Affleck refrains from easy-to-please gestures with Argo — no rah-rah patriotism or cheap character moments that play to our empathies — in favor of a hardened and more complex film. His movie is not a staid, matter-of-fact retelling of this grim moment in our nation's history. Rather, Affleck lifts the heaviness with a surprising amount of humor that mingles well with inherent drama without treating the Iranians as cartoonish villains.
Through the use of actual news footage he reminds us that extremism existed in both countries, with a mutually assured hatred. A political history lesson of Iran in the 20th century, which opens the film, is also a reminder that the United States' meddling in that country's foreign policy bears some blame as well.
Caught in the middle of this nightmare are six frightened souls with regrets of staying too long in a destabilizing country, of not heeding the warning signs, or of not listening to the advice of others. These four men and two women ultimately found sanctuary with the Canadian ambassador, who hid them until they could be smuggled out of the country.
The CIA is dumbfounded with how to get the Americans out, but Tony Mendez, an "exfiltration" specialist, suggests "the best bad plan" to free them. Mendez is a career man whose job-before-marriage lifestyle led to a separation from his wife and son. So maybe, just maybe, this plan he has to free the hostages is as important to himself — perhaps justification for his sacrifices — as it is to those he plans to rescue.
Affleck plays Mendez as a quiet man of character and determination. The CIA operative doesn't lie, but he prefers to tell people only as much as they need to know. And once he's committed to something, he's not easily swayed to change course.
Affleck offers a passive performance — a role that moves the story forward and quietly calls the shots, but makes little noise about it. As someone deep in the CIA, Mendez undoubtedly learned to bottle his emotions; especially in the thick of a dangerous mission such as the Iranian rescue, one lapse in his I-will-make-this-work facade could prove disastrous for all. It's an impressive performance not for what Affleck does, but what he doesn't do. There are no one liners. No jingoistic speeches. It's simply an important job he's volunteered for, knowing he's the best option available.
Alan Arkin as Hollywood producer/showman Lester Siegel casts the biggest impression on screen, along with John Goodman as fellow film studio player John Chambers, whom Mendez has worked with before in another mission. They're a funny combination on screen and the behind-the-story scenes of Mendez pretending to be a wannabe Hollywood producer alongside Siegel and Chambers is absurdly true, and a welcome distraction from the drama unfolding in Iran.
The juxtapositions of these scenes — the inanity of Hollywood parties as rites of passage for a burgeoning film production with the mounting fears of those trapped in Iran — makes the point of the clash in cultures that persists even now.
Affleck inserts such thoughtful commentary and ideas unobtrusively into his film; there's no ideological ball-peen hammer from the filmmaker to drive his beliefs into the audience.
Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay by Chris Terrio. A Warner Bros. Picture release, playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for language and some violent images. Running time: 200 minutes.
Critic's rating: **** (Very good)
Ben Affleck...................Tony Mendez
Bryan Cranston.......... Jack O'Donnell
John Goodman...........John Chambers
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.