‘I’ ON CULTURE
Ben Affleck’s Argo is quite simply the best movie I have seen in years. Based on historical fact, the film keeps you on the edge of your seat within minutes of its start and keeps you there until the end. Along the way it manages some incredible humor. It is smart, interesting and terrifying all at once. If the Oscars were given only for all the movies made so far this year, Argo and Affleck would be getting the big awards for Best Film and Best Director.
The movie begins with a mini (and I mean really mini; it lasts less than a minute) documentary of the history of Iran up until the fall of the Shah in 1979. Then it focuses on the attack on our embassy in Teheran (which certainly keeps the movie right up to the minute; I wonder how different the attack on our people in Benghazi was) and the way it was taken. But six staff members who worked in the visa section managed to escape and were given refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The true hero, Taylor was given the Congressional Gold Medal by President Jimmy Carter. They hid there for months, wondering how they might escape as groups of militants went door to door looking for anyone who might get away.
The American government, of course, knew all about the six and frantically looked for ways to get them out, knowing that if they were caught, they might be tortured or simply executed. Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), the president’s chief of staff, listened unbelievably as solutions like having the six ride bicycles 300 miles to the border were presented. The CIA finally had its top specialist at exfiltration Tony Mendez (Affleck) shoot down those ideas only to come up with one even wilder. He, and the six, would pretend to be Canadian filmmakers looking at Iran as a place to shoot a science fiction movie, Argo. Mendez’s boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) admits it’s a bad idea but insists “it’s the best bad idea we have.”
To set up the whole thing, Mendez goes to an old friend, makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who actually was a real part of the action 30 years ago. Chambers sets him up with producer Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin), a composite of several people, and they create a mythical movie (for science fiction fans, it really was a version of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light) through a few ads and effective publicity. The section involving them is incredibly funny and relieves at least a bit of the tension.
Finally, Mendez goes into Iran and meets the six Americans. They are very torn about taking a chance on leaving even though they know they’ll be caught if they stay. Mendez convinces them to try and, once things get started on the escape, there is no relief from the tension until just about the end of the film.
Affleck’s direction is marvelous. He manages to keep the audience on the edge of its seat while providing an escape hatch for the tensions through some humor. The cast is excellent. Affleck and Cranston do their usual good acting, but the supporting cast carries the dramatic impact. Garber is remarkably good as the Canadian who gives them protection even while wondering if his own household staff will betray him. Tate Donovan is really good as Bob Anders, the oldest of the escapees, Clea DuVall provides an emotional center for the escapees; every bit of fear, even terror, is reflected in her face. And Christopher Denham, as her husband, the most recalcitrant of the escapees, gives a brilliant three dimensional portrayal, terrified but smart enough to step forward and take the lead when necessary.
This is a tour de force of a film. I was not surprised that the audience applauded when it was over. I wanted to cheer, and I am more than a bit of a cynic. But Affleck did not make a single misstep. There is no condescension, no extraneous explaining to the audience things he might think we would not know. Instead, everything is set out on the table and he lets the story tell itself. The tension alone, the very real connection to what is going on in parts of the world today, would help make the story.
Putting in the very real story of six terrified people who are forced, even if for only a brief time, to be very strong, creates a strong, very moving story.
This is a great movie, one that should not be missed. See it.