"This is the best bad plan we have... by far, sir."
If it wasn't based on real events, one could say that the premise of Argo is one of the most absurd ideas ever. And I have to wonder how many probably laughed at it at the CIA Headquarters when Tony Mendez pitched it in. The fact that it really happened only makes it even more impressive. In a way, that reminds me of Compliance, another recent 2012 watch which is improved by the realization that what one saw on the screen actually happened.
The film follows the efforts of the CIA and the government to rescue six diplomats from Iran in the middle of the 1979 hostage crisis at the embassy. The film opens with a compelling, easy-to-follow prologue explaining the background of the political situation of Iran at the moment. I can see how some people might consider it sort of an oversimplification of things; an "Iran for Dummies", if you may. But I think it served its purpose and successfully established the environment in which the film takes place. After that, we see the riots in front of the embassy escalate until hundred of people manage to storm inside forcing the six diplomats to escape into the Tehran streets and into hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador.
Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA operative and exfiltration expert, brought in as a consultant by the State Department. As the government scrambles for possible covers to exfiltrate the diplomats, Mendez comes up with the idea of using the filming of a cheesy sci-fi film as the cover. As absurd as it might seem, Mendez worked the logistics of the plan with friend and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), which includes setting up a phony production company, choose a script, design posters and storyboards, and make public script readings.
As Mendez prepares to travel to Iran, he sets up fake credentials and identities for the six diplomats, who are growing more desperate as time passes by, and the possibility of being captured increases. Affleck successfully builds a tense atmosphere around the events with a tight direction by intercutting different events to get the point that they are not safe. None of the diplomats is fleshed out enough, but still the different actors did well with what little was given to them.
Goodman and Arkin were pretty good, and played well off each other. But I'm surprised that Arkin was nominated for this. His performance, although charismatic, wasn't that impressive to me. He did have the best line of the film though ("Argo fuck yourself!"). Affleck was pretty good as well, considering that his role was more of a stoic operative, and required little emotion. But he did handle well those subtle moments of introspection in Mendez mind.
Overall, Argo is a neatly crafted film in terms of directing. Affleck manages to infuse tension in something that probably shouldn't have, considering that lots of people know the outcome. In a way, that reminded me of Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which also had a decent amount of tension, despite the fact that we all know what happened. Plus, he does so without resorting to the typical thriller clichés of explosions, shootouts, and whatnot. As the film progresses, the implausibility of all the "close calls" that the group faces start to mount, but I still found it to be effective. Even though I know it was silly, script-wise, to have the Iranians racing the plane at the last moment, I was still on the edge of my seat waiting for the plane to take off. Kudos to Affleck and Co. for that. Another small moment of "forced irony" was when they showed Sahar crossing the border to Iraq in the end. Interesting, but I could've done without that "a-ha!" moment.
In my opinion, Affleck continues to show that he has the skills to be one of the best current directors. Argo might not be a masterpiece, but it was an entertaining and well crafted film. Grade: B+
(All pictures belong to Warner Bros. and its affiliates)