Not much is known about the Argo mission in the late ’70s to free American hostages in Iran. And what little was known up till now gave credit to Canada for their release. In fact, it’s referred to in pop-history vernacular as the Canadian Caper. If you grew up in Canada you would have felt enormous national pride that day and if you were American, you never would have known that the CIA and Hollywood had come together to create a team of invisible heroes. You also wouldn’t know that although President Carter was in charge at the time, he could never have taken credit for any involvement. Instead, he was shamed out of office for not having released the other American hostages in Iran. Had it been revealed that a fake film crew sneaked in and freed Americans being held hostage the sensational news would have likely turned Carter’s whole image around.
Someone had to tell this story. Turns out Ben Affleck is the man for the job.
Affleck’s Argo comes at a time when we could all use an injection of American pride. Pummeled by a bad economy and torn by an extremist, partisan election, things are not looking good lately. The Republicans promise us that they can undo the bad economy because Congress will magically start working again if their guy can sit in the Oval Office. They’re the real American Americans, after all. The Democrats are trying to keep the faith, to convince us to give them one more at bat to turn things around from an economy pillaged by the Wall Street collapse, sapped by extravagant tax breaks, and ravaged by 10 years of war. But Argo takes place in the vacuum of history and Affleck says he worked hard with screenwriter Chris Terrio to make sure it wasn’t partisan. There are no long preachy speeches about the glory of US-exported democracy. There are no evil Republicans to mock as reckless incompetents. It’s simply an expertly written, flawlessly directed, brilliantly acted thriller. You could leave it right there and it would succeed on those merits. Or you could go a little deeper to talk about how few smart, meaty stories like this are even made anymore. Wonder why not, and marvel that this one was.
Maybe it’s Affleck’s unique combination of talents — his funny side familiar from personal appearances that’s rarely seen onscreen, his nimble dexterity with action scenes which were the best part of The Town, and his wealth of knowledge about US history, pop culture history and foreign policy folded together to make Argo such a richly knitted experience. In one scene, Mendez (played by Affleck to the chagrin of many who argue the role coulda shoulda been given to one of many first-rate Latino actors, but oh well) is talking to his son on the phone. “What you watching?” He asks. The kid tells him (a spoiler, so I won’t say what it is). “What channel?” he asks. You would only really get how significant that tiny tossed-off remark feels if you’d grown up before the plethora of cable TV became the norm. There were only a few channels in the ’80s, less than a dozen really. So when you said “What channel?” you could tick them off by rote with 10 fingers. The film is full of wonderful anachronous elements and straightfaced jokes dependent on dated details that only viewers living in today’s world would find funny.
Argo is the true story of a CIA agent who had the ingenious idea to smuggle out American diplomats who had evaded capture when the US Embassy was seized by Iranian forces in 1979. The shrewd scheme to rescue the evacuees transpired under the guise of a bogus Canadian film crew ostensibly sent to scout Middle East locations for a sci-fi extravaganza purported to be the next Star Wars. They hired a down-and-out Hollywood veteran (Alan Arkin) who was all but washed up to pose as the producer. They set up a fake office with John Goodman functioning as a production manager. At any moment something could go wrong and all of the errant hostages are dead.
The surprising thing about the film is how taut and lean it is. There isn’t an ounce of fat anywhere. Affleck filmed The Town to feel expansive, but this film runs hot and fast like a thoroughbred. The last hour is pure white-knuckle suspense — it isn’t new school suspense like Mission Impossible or the Bourne films — it’s suspense done old school so the style echoes the era. It’s Sydney Pollock, Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet. Affleck took his cues, it seems, from those masters. This is perhaps why it stands out as such a surprise in the here and now; who would have thought the guy to deliver an intricate political thriller would be Affleck and yet, here it is.
The cast is superb, starting with Arkin and Goodman who, as one might guess, steal the show. But the all supporting players are terrific too — Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy, not to mention Affleck himself who appears here with a little less luster than he did in The Town, though there is one shot of him with his shirt off, washboard abs covered by a thick layer of chest hair. It’s a risky move — you don’t want to appear vain if you’re directing yourself. On the other hand, it does show that this guy is fit enough to handle a covert op gone wrong if necessary. If you’re a CIA guy in charge of a mission like that you’d want to know he could kick some serious ass if need be.
Argo, which is probably going to end the year as one of the best, illustrates what an accomplished director Affleck has proven himself to be. Perhaps it’s his humility that afforded him the chance to learn some hard lessons with his first two films. Or maybe he’s just a natural. Either way, Argo vaults him in the big leagues, an adept, seasoned director who has the confidence to trust his DP, his screenwriters and his actors.
The most surprising thing about the film, though, is how unexpectedly moving it is. By the end you feel like you’ve been part of something only heroes get to experience. Invisible though they necessarily were back then, they can now be remembered fully exposed, not only for pulling off something so outrageously implausible, but for the equally unlikely feat of keeping quiet about it all these years.