The Iranian Revolution is a highly controversial topic with many levels of nuance and international gamesmanship that have been debated back and forth for years. This tricky subject is at the heart of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo. Coming off the success of his 2010 bank heist actioner, The Town, Affleck tackles a topic far removed from the safety of his Boston roots. The nature of the story makes it easy for the director to heavily lean on elements of action and suspense. This crutch would potentially drown the characters and make it a throwaway at best. Affleck chooses, wisely, a different route and it bears fruit in the end.
Using the tactic of movie storyboards, we are given the overall view of the events that start the Iranian Revolution. While brief, the information is accurate and brings the unknowing audience up to speed within minutes. No one is dumped into the chaos without a proper introduction. The immediate scene after drops the audience into the middle of the revolution as the U.S. embassy is being besieged by angry revolutionaries. In the chaos we quickly meet the 6 foreign service workers and we get to overhear their decision to leave the embassy. The scene is well shot with back and forth moments between the revolutionaries and the embassy inhabitants. This is the first scene that Affleck plays with tension in a subtle but meaningful way; it won’t be his last. Once out of the embassy the six Americans escape to the house of the Canadian ambassador, and live in secret there for 60 days. Back in the U.S. the Central Intelligence Agency has been working diligently to launch a successful rescue operation. There is a fantastic scene in which we get to hear what absolutely ludicrous ideas the C.I.A. has come up with to get these people to safety. Its amusing and scary simultaneously as you realize any one of these could have been used. Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) calls in a his technical operations expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to help come up with an idea on the rescue. After some inspiration from his young son, Mendez comes up with an off the wall idea. Proposing the idea of a fake movie to use as a backdrop to get the 6 Americans out was not only brilliant but insane.
After getting the approval, Mendez is off to Hollywood to pretend to be a big shot. With the assistance of Lester Seigel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) the fake persona and film gets underway. The interaction between the three was a nice comedic relief from the harshness of the revolution scenes. We are treated to scenes of three working to make this fake movie a fake hit. Once the audience gets comfortable with hanging around in Hollywood they are thrust back into the lion’s den of the Iranian Revolution. When Mendez arrives the plan is explained to the 6 Americans and we are presented with moments of pure tension all the way to the end of their ordeal. The actors who portray the 6 hostages give such nuanced performances that you really don’t lose track of who they are. This is not an easy task in a film like this. Everyone has a part to play and all parts are important. Much like the real life situation must have called for, everyone works as a team here. Affleck, while clearly the main character, is constantly being buoyed by the fantastic supporting actors around him. His steely reserve is made genuine by the unabashed cowardice of others around him.
The entire final sequence is a textbook example of how you build and sustain tension in a film. Affleck plays it with expert timing and style. There were so many moments of outright cringing when certain dialogue or actions were taken. Even though I knew the ending going into the film you still hang on the edge of your seat. This was easily one of the best films of the year and everyone involved deserves credit. The acting, as I said before, is all about teamwork. No one character stood alone, nor did any falter. Affleck commanded fantastic performances from Cranston in the C.I.A. to Goodman in Hollywood. When there was turmoil you felt it in the performances. When there was success you cheered along. This is what great film making looks like. Many have said that Affleck’s directing might be a flash in the pan, I think Argo proves that not only can the man direct, but he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Run, don’t walk , to see Argo in theaters.