The dullest part of “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s opening salvo for Oscar season, is the exposition he gives us at the very beginning. Affleck took two minutes to have a narrator explain the events leading up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It was a necessity, but it was dry and pedantic, a moment of high school history.
It is, however, the only two minutes I could find fault with in the entire motion picture.
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin
“Argo” is a little-known story of six American embassy workers who managed to escape being captured with their colleagues and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. A CIA ex-filtration specialist named Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocted a plan to smuggle them out by convincing the Iranian authorities that they were part of a Canadian film crew for a B-level science fiction movie.
As Affleck has said in interviews, it’s a movie that would be terrible except for the fact that it’s true.
“Argo” is not directly about the revolution or the hostage crisis, but they’re both the backdrop and the shadow pervading every scene. Affleck has a tremendous sense of time and place, and creates a chilling view of urban life in the middle of a revolution. Tehran was a sea of abject cruelty and everyday heroism, trapping a populace of regular people who found themselves unable to go into the marketplace for fear of being hanged from construction cranes. It’s an old story, but the obvious research, meticulous attention to detail and razor-sharp, minimalist visuals are like a sucker-punch to the gut in their immediacy.
The grit of the scenes in Tehran are intriguingly contrasted with the “Ocean’s 11”-like scenes in Hollywood, where Mendez goes to consult with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, in lovable curmudgeon mode) and makeup designer John Chambers (John Goodman). Siegel and Chambers were responsible for the verity of their little enterprise, furnishing Mendez with a script, actors, trade publication notices and a fake production company complete with office space. These scenes are smooth Hollywood-insider pieces, with jokes about Rock Hudson and Siegel’s copious awards that he uses as paperweights. It’s a little circle-jerky, but in general the scenes move well with the rest of the film and keep it from descending into a moral message.
Affleck is a better director than he is an actor, and I say that with the knowledge that his Mendez is excellent. He’s equal parts everyman and Company Man- he’s not Jason Bourne, he’s a guy who’s very, very good at his job. Those who played the escaped Embassy workers add to the sense of place by showing their gradual unhinging at the hands of boredom, anger and constant fear. And though “gripping” is a word that’s entirely overused in my line of work, the climactic scene where Mendez and his wards attempt their escape literally had me gripping my arm rests.
This is indeed a movie that would be terrible if it wasn’t true. But even more than the facts, it’s the feelings that are true in “Argo”- the unrelenting fear and unease in a city on the edge, the recklessness and joy of an old-fashioned heist, and the murmur of hope that refuses to quell under the certainty of failure.
There’s nothing pedantic about that.