The most impressive aspect of Argo is how it makes one doubt history.
A problem with any historical film is that anyone who knows history will know how the film must end. Therefore, any scenes that are meant to create suspense are usually moot. We know that the Titanic must sink. We know that there is no chance the allied invasion of Normandy will fail. Trying to pretend otherwise is an exercise in futility.
Likewise, we know that the mission at the heart of Argo will succeed (spoiler warnings be damned. This is history; complaining about my “ruining the ending” demonstrates a lack of knowledge on an important subject). But Ben Affleck’s direction does everything it can to fool audiences into thinking that there is a chance that this unlikely mission might fail. The camera lingers on the faces of the revolutionary guard, the characters themselves are full of doubts about playing pretend, and the editing emphasizes the enormous tension that each player in this elaborate game was feeling, and how little time they had to pull it off.
I remember when Affleck has a pariah, whose presence in a film seemed to indicate that the material was artistically dead. So I never thought I would write these words, but they are absolutely true. Affleck has managed to create the best political thriller in recent memory.
For those who don’t know, or somehow forgot, during the Iranian Revolution the United States embassy in Tehran was stormed. 52 of the employees were held hostage for well over a year. The incident severed all diplomatic ties between the two nations (even today, the United States still does not officially recognize the Iranian government).
Argo tells the true story of the six diplomats who somehow managed to escape the initial raid. They are Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark and Cora Lijek (Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall), Joseph and Kathleen Stafford (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé), and Henry Schatz (Rory Cochrane). After escaping into the streets, Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) allowed them to hide in his home. The CIA attempted to create several different covers to get them out, including claiming they were foreign teachers (at a time when all foreign schools were closed) and farmers who were in Iran to inspect crops (in the middle of winter). One person even suggested giving them bicycles, drawing a map of the back roads, and hoping for the best. But Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) struck upon a novel solution while watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes with his son; he would create a fake space opera movie shoot and disguise the diplomats as members of the film crew. This meets the tentative approval of his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston). Mendez goes to Hollywood to set up the fake shoot with Oscar winning make up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Ads are printed in Variety, posters are made, fake production companies are created, script readings are held, storyboards are created. But Mendez only has a limited time to pull the scheme off, and has to travel to Iran to teach some very frightened people how to be Hollywood big shots.
With so much back story, one question that many people will have is, “what is the film trying to say?” Is it meant to somehow cast blame on the United States for the current situation in the Middle East? That would be the temptation of many filmmakers who think that such material needs to be used to convey a message. Argo wisely avoids preaching, accept for a coda which discussed how the the operation was a fine example of international co-operation. Anything more than that is up to the viewers to take away. There are brief shots of the World Trade Center (on a poster in the U.S. embassy at the start of the film) which may indicate Affleck had something in mind. But in a thriller, saying so would break up the action.
What Affleck focuses on is the impeccable craft needed to make Argo work. The whole film, like the whole operation, could have easily unraveled. Then again, so could the actually operation with one view of a poster, or one rightly timed question. But Argo sticks to its convictions by depending on the human factor of the story. Each of the characters (and the actors portraying them) are properly scared about the situation. One of the diplomats even refuses to go along with the scheme, claiming that it is too risky. Affleck himself plays Tony as a man who feels a constant need to scream at any given moment, but cannot. We care what happens to these characters. We want them to get out of danger, and we also realize how unlikely that outcome is. Trust me; if you were not informed that this was a true story, you would not believe the ending.
Ben Affleck, in his third film, has done what lesser blockbuster directors (like Rob Cohen and Michael Bay) wish they could do. He has made a thriller that is designed to keep fists and teeth clenched throughout its run time. Better still, he does so without depending on explosions or violence. All Argo needed was to be a film in which the stakes were high against real people and to be based around a scheme was so unlikely to work it would probably never he tried again. Here’s the best thing I can say; at the end of the film, my heart was pounding and I could do nothing more than breathe a massive sigh of relief.