Guess That Affleck Guy Can Direct, Huh? Yeah, I guess so. I wasn't all-in on The Town, but with Gone Baby Gone and now this, I'm prepared to say Ben Affleck has serious chops. Hell, maybe I'll even forgive him for Daredevil.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four and a half ayatollahs out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: CIA operative uses Hollywood connections to whip up fake movie in an attempt to free American diplomats in hiding. And then Liam Neeson shows up and kills Khomeini.
Tagline: "The movie was fake. The mission was real."
Better Tagline: "See? The CIA isn't that bad.
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: During the revolutionary takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, six diplomats (working in the immigration and visa bureau) escaped and holed up for 79 days in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the Iranians noticed they were absent from the captured embassy contingent, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) cooked up a scheme - wit the help of Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Agency-friendly makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) - to smuggle the escapees out under the pretense of scouting locations for a new science fiction movie.
"Critical" Analysis: Hollywood never shies away from the opportunity to pat itself on the back, so you can imagine the fevered rush to adapt Chris Terrio's screenplay about the so-called "Canadian Caper." But what could have been an overly self-congratulatory effort ends up both a gripping yarn and a wryly comic look at the movie industry itself.
Affleck won me over from the prologue, a storyboarded intro outlining the CIA-engineered overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 and subsequent brutal reign of the Shah. The 1979 Revolution, in other words, didn't just sort of "happen," and Affleck putting that forward at the outset keeps things from getting too "America: fuck yeah!"
Like that was going to happen in a movie produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (Syriana, The Ides of March) anyway.
The first half of the film is also surprisingly funny, as Mendez gets this "best of bad ideas" approved by Agency higher-ups and travels to Los Angeles to get the ball rolling. Arkin and Goodman are great, even if presenting them as the only sane men in the land of illusion feels a bit too neat. The efficiency in which they're able to mock up a big budget production and, more importantly, get the obliging entertainment press to promote it for them, is a not-so-subtle dig at that particular industry.
Anyone who thinks the cheesiness of the proposed Argo's plot and shameless aping of A New Hope is far-fetched has obviously never seen Battle Beyond the Stars.
Tone shifts with the action when Mendez arrives in Tehran. I encourage anyone who bitches about what a police state America has become to pay particular attention to this part of the movie. Affleck portrays revolutionary Iran in all its paranoid glory, as Mendez attempts the seemingly impossible: get six weary diplomats who've been in hiding for months to assume new identities and sneak out of, as Siegel described it, "the most watched city on Earth." The striking juxtaposition between these scenes and the first acts of the film is help make Argo as effective as it is.
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If you didn't know this was a true story, you'd laugh out loud at how contrived it was. And even knowing the ending, the final airport scenes are as suspensful as any fictional spy thriller you'lll see. Certain elements of the actual story have been modified for our pleasure (Mendez was in Tehran for more than a couple days, and the efforts of the Canadian government have been largely minimized), and as "political thrillers" go, Argo is less cerebral than stimulating, but the end result is enjoyably suspenseful and surprisingly funny.
And it manages what few past movies have attempted: it makes you root for both the movie industry and the CIA.
Argo is in theaters today. See it with your favorite Canadian. If you have one.