"This is the best bad idea we have, sir. By far."
So, your friend is telling a story--a really good story--but it's one that you've already heard the ending to. All that build-up, describing the characters and the setting and it's all for naught because you know exactly where it's going. Disappointing, eh? Well that's ARGO, except that it's anything but dissatisfying. Quite the opposite, really. Based on the real life Iranian hostage crisis, Ben Affleck's third feature is an immensely enthralling drama; one that's too good (and almost too bizarre) to be true.
On November 4th, 1979, somewhere between 300 and 500 students and militants gathered outside the American embassy, ultimately storming the doors and taking 66 US citizens hostage; the majority of them were held for 444 days. Unbeknownst to the insurgents, a group of six embassy staff escaped the raid, fleeing the building, eventually hiding out at the nearby Canadian ambassador's (Victor Garber) home. Halfway across the world, the Batphone (or whatever communication device they used back then) starts buzzing, alerting the CIA and Tony Mendez (Affleck) to the goings-on.
Ideas are thrown around--having them impersonate farmers, simply giving them bicycles to drive out of the city (!)--before Mendez thinks up a plot involving the exiles as a Canadian film crew scouting the area for shoot locations. What's surprising is how funny some of the exchanges (and many others throughout) are as the CIA are delving into specifics behind this pretty outrageous idea. It's just as harebrained as it sounds and for some of these ultra serious government types, the fact that a sanctioned operation revolves around going to Hollywood and hiring a producer and a screenwriter is, needless to say, hard to swallow.
The execution between earnest and madcap is handled flawlessly; a huge testament to the work of Affleck. It's still a little shocking (though I'd wager that the disbelief will subside after the success of ARGO) that a man who has gone through more than a few career alterations can churn out something of this magnitude. With GONE BABY GONE (2007) and THE TOWN (2010), his last two efforts were both way more than serviceable, and each subsequent time behind the lens has seen Affleck get more and more comfortable. With ARGO, he has submitted a truly authoritative film, one that will be afforded a huge amount of credence for years to come.
Some of the brilliance must be allocated to the sharp casting. Save for Affleck himself, and perhaps Bryan Cranston (Jack O'Donnell, a fellow agent) none of the actors are stars (a point that Affleck was adamant about), and are barely recognizable after the 70's style mustaches and hairstyles. Each of the refugees have their brief moment in the spotlight, though most of their screen time is spent huddled together, bouncing off worried looks and panicky vocals. Clea DuVall (THE FACULTY), Christopher Denham (SOUND OF MY VOICE) and Scott McNairy (MONSTERS) are particularly strong. For their part, Alan Arkin and John Goodman portray Lester Siegel and John Chambers*, a real life producer and make-up artist to help authenticate their espionage plot. (Fun fact: Chambers earned an Academy Award for his work on Planet of the Apes, and also designed Spock's ears for Star Trek.)
*Real great credit sequence as well. As the cast is rolling one-by-one on screen, a picture of the actor and real personality he or she portrayed are propped side-by-side. Not sure if casting made it a priority to match it as well as they did, or if they went solely for talent, but in my opinion they knocked it out of the park. Here's Goodman's doppelgänger for example.
The ending is nerve-wracking. And it shouldn't be! If you're unfamiliar with history and how it unfolded I won't spoil it here for you, but I was on the edge of my seat as Mendez leads his crew out of the safe house to a seemingly routine trip to a bazaar, finally through the many security levels of the Tehran airport; all the while tiny Iranian children are piecing together the Americans' true identities by painstakingly combing through millions of strips of shredded paper. Mendez was decorated for his work in the hostage ordeal, which remained classified until recently. We should all be thankful. For his work that led to the saving of lives, as well as a damn fine story.