Movie review: ‘Argo’ marries Hollywood and Iranian politics

By Brian A. Feldman

That “Argo,” the newest film directed by Ben Affleck, is based on a true story is likely the primary justification for green-lighting the project in the first place. On paper, the narrative combination of a tense Iran hostage situation and the farcical inner workings of the Hollywood film industry sounds absurd and risky. The dissonance between the situations is nearly irreconcilable, but “Argo” manages to deftly weave both together to create a fun reversal of the “heist movie” sub-genre in which the stakes are considerably higher.

The film opens with the fall of the US Embassy in November of 1979. While most of the embassy’s employees were taken hostage, six managed to escape and take shelter at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Realizing that any boilerplate cover story will not be strong enough to get them out of Iran, the CIA brings in Tony Mendez (Affleck), who is regarded as an expert in exfiltration. Mendez suggests that the six trapped men and women pose as members of a Canadian film crew.

From there, the film’s second act follows Mendez’s quest to Hollywood to meet with John Chambers (John Goodman), a makeup artist and occasional CIA consultant. As Mendez jets into LA, the film shows a digital recreation of the Hollywood sign, which had fallen into heavy disrepair in the ‘70s—a not-so-subtle metaphor for the industry itself. Interestingly enough, the sign was restored in 1978, before the events in “Argo” occur.

Chambers and Mendez also find a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to set up a shell production company. It’s shrewd casting, since it allows Arkin and Goodman, two of the best character actors working today and veterans of the Hollywood system, to play off each other and offer line after snappy line of criticism towards their own industry. “You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day,” quips Goodman in his first scene. When the team realizes they will actually have to buy the script for “Argo,” Arkin quickly wisecracks, “You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.”

From there, Mendez sets off to Iran to prep the trapped Americans. This is easily the dullest part as the film focuses on the reservations held by these six particularly unestablished characters. They are human MacGuffins: catalyst for the plot and little else. Do they go along? I wouldn’t dare reveal that, but I will remind you that “Argo” is Based On A True Story.

While the hand-wringing in Ken Taylor’s living room is artificial, the film climaxes with a remarkably nerve-racking airport sequence that makes TSA frustrations look trivial. It’s Murphy’s Law in action, as all of the spinning plates in Mendez’s story wobble and nearly shatter.

While “Argo” almost always manages to strike a balance between the real-life tension of the situation and its outlandish premise, the tones occasionally clash. This is no clearer than in a sequence in which Affleck cuts between an ostentatious table read of the sci-fi screenplay meant to drum up buzz from the press and a press conference in which the Iranian hostage-takers list their demands. The sequence is meant to portray how this Hollywood circus is serving a greater good, but it lays on the sermonizing a little too thickly.

The greatest asset of “Argo” is its sizable cast of “that guy” actors. Zeljko Ivancek, Titus Welliver, Kyle Chandler, Richard Kind, and Philip Baker Hall are all on hand to don the campiest of ‘70s fashion and hairstyles. The most important of these parts belongs to Bryan Cranston, who chews scenery as Mendez’s pragmatic CIA superior. Shortly before a meeting with the secretary of state, Cranston offers up an apt analogy that “It’s like those two old fucks from the Muppets.”

With “Argo,” Ben Affleck  once again managed to show his skill as a director, combining scenarios of Hollywood excess and pessimistic espionage operations. As Arkin states when briefed on the situation “We did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this.” The same thought encapsulates “Argo,” which probably shouldn’t work nearly as well as it actually does.

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