Thursday, October 18, 2012


By Jon Gallagher 

(WB, 2012) Director: Ben Affleck. Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, and Tate Donovan.

It is rare when a movie lives up to its hype or previews. Argo, from director Ben Affleck, not only lives up to those lofty expectations, but surpasses them as well.

The movie is based on the true story of how Iranian “students” captured the American Embassy in 1979, holding 52 American diplomats as hostages during the Iranian Revolution and overthrow of the Shah of Iran. Six diplomats managed to escape and take refuge in the Canadian Embassy. The movie chronicles the details of how they escaped the country and returned home.

Although I’m sure certain liberties were taken with the actual events, Affleck as director, combines fact and fiction to give us two hours of exceptional entertainment, complete with breath-holding moments in the final minutes of the film. Even for those of us who lived through the Iran Hostage Crisis and know the ending, the film’s climactic scenes kept us on the edge of our seats.

Affleck not only directs the movie, but stars as well, playing the lead role of Tony Mendez, the lead CIA operative in charge of extracting the six escapees. John Goodman is equally excellent as Jack Chambers, a makeup artist (he was responsible for the Planet of the Apes makeup) who helps Mendez forge the plot and cover story. However, 78-year old Alan Arkin steals the show with his portrayal of Lester Siegel (a fictional composite), in the process taking the crotchety old man character to new heights.

The movie begins with the Iranian students taking control of the Embassy and the six escaping to the Canadian Embassy. The CIA calls Mendez to sit in on a brainstorming session by the CIA. How to come up with an extraction plan? During the takeover, diplomats shredded documents, including pictures and dossiers on all American employees, but the Iranians are reconstructing those documents in a painstakingly slow process much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The CIA fears that it won’t be long till they discover the six missing.

Ideas are floated and tossed around the meeting. The best anyone can come up with is to provide the six with bicycles and have them ride more than 300 miles to the Turkish border at the beginning of winter. Other ideas are shot down as well, mainly because of the security at the airports and other checkpoints, keeping outsiders out and insiders in.

Mendez hatches a plan that would have a Canadian movie crew scout the region for a place to film a new movie. He enlists the aid of Chambers and Siegel to put together a believable plot, complete with fake script, fake publicity, and even a fake office in Hollywood. The script they settle on is called Argo and is a science fiction monstrosity, an obvious rip off of Star Wars.

Mendez is given a window of about 72 hours to get in, give the six diplomats their new identities, and have them learn their new backgrounds in case they are stopped.

One would think that anyone being hiding out in such a manner would be more than anxious to escape, but at least one of the six expresses his doubts as to whether the mission will work, and rebels against the idea. The conflict is set up and could be the proverbial monkey wrench waiting to be tossed into the CIA’s plan.

I’m told that the last 30 minutes of the film, the nail-biting scenes, are almost entirely fiction. I’ll give Affleck a pass on that. After all, just because the Von Trapp family escaped Austria by walking to a train station with no Nazi soldiers chasing them, either through the station or an Abby, the Sound of Music is still a wonderful movie. If Affleck would have told the actual story, we’d probably have been bored to tears.

There was a round of applause given to the movie from the audience where I screened the film (Peoria, Illinois, on a Sunday afternoon) that quickly died away as the credits rolled. Credit was given to the Canadian Government for their role in the extraction and a reflection by former President Jimmy Carter was heard as pictures from the 1979-1980 time-frame were shown. 

Affleck also included side-by-side pictures of the stars and the real people they portrayed. Special kudos go to Lara Kennedy, who was responsible for the casting, and which was drop dead straight on.

When the credits quit rolling and the lights came on, most of the audience (who had stayed) burst into a nice round of applause, something that I haven’t witnessed for a while.

I’ll expect this one to garner at least a couple of nominations when it comes award time. Affleck should be nominated for his directing and either Arkin or Goodman (perhaps both) for their supporting roles. The cinematography may take some hardware home as well; they used special techniques to give the whole film the look and feel of something from the late 70s and early 80s.

Obviously I’m giving the movie an A+.  I’m anxious to own this DVD and see what other goodies Affleck will include with it.

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