On November 4, 1979; the U.S. embassy in Iran was stormed by student radicals and the staff inside were taken hostage by the new Islamist Iranian government. What had not been known publicly, and was top secret until declassified in 1997, is that six embassy workers - US citizens - escaped into the street. They ran to the Canadian ambassador's residence. He and his wife sheltered them while the U.S. government desperately searched for a way to rescue them. While the other American hostages in the embassy where under vigilant watch by the world press, these six people and the Canadians who helped them would be executed as spies if their whereabouts where known. The CIA's leading ex-filtration operative, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), hatched an incredibly dangerous and implausible plan to free the six. With a little help from some friends (Alan Arkin & John Goodman) in Hollywood, they would create an elaborate deception; a science fiction film set in the desert - Argo. Then under the guise of location scouting, Mendez would spirit the six out of Iran, posing as the Canadian film crew.
Argo is the first film I've seen this year that warrants an Oscar nomination for Best Film. Ben Affleck, whose stock has been soaring as a director, crafts a riveting tale of daring and suspense. The film moves at a lightning pace, constantly cutting back and forth between these seemingly improbable events. As the situation in Iran deteriorates, we feel the palpable fear of the six as the world erupts in chaos around them. Then, to my complete surprise, Affleck puts in a fair amount of humor as the Hollywood team struggles to make the Argo deception look as real as possible. The plan is so ludicrous, so unbelievable, the conspirators have to laugh. This interplay of candid anxiety adds a degree of realism that really sells Argo to the audience.
Affleck is not trivial in his depiction of the Iranians. It would have been easy to paint them as merciless villains out for innocent American blood. He takes a great deal of screen time explaining how the hostage crisis came to be. He literally gives the audience a history lesson of the Persian Empire, the western exploitation of Iran, and how the Islamists where able to fight off western oppression. He establishes the reason behind their anger, but does not give them a pass on their actions. Tehran, the capital of Iran where the action takes place, is portrayed as boiling with anger and violence. The Islamists overthrew a regime of torture, only to be as brutal and savage as their oppressors. Affleck's central Iranian character is Sahar (Sheila Vand), the housekeeper of the Canadian ambassador. Her role in this story is so pivotal; I applaud the filmmakers for giving her humanity and reason in a desperate situation.
Chris Terrio adapted the screenplay for Argo from an article by Joshua Bearman. Terrio's script is damn good. He paints a portrait of a world on the brink, with the lives of these innocent people precariously hanging by a thread. I was highly impressed with his ability to establish tension and danger. His characters are real people under constant threat. Every character is distinctly written as understanding the gravity of the situation, but reacting differently as they try to cope. Terrio does this without preachy monologues or melodrama. I think the best way to describe his writing is adult. It's to the point, not overly sophisticated, but matter of fact. I have yet to see Spielberg's Lincoln, but Terrio is clearly in the running for the adapted screenplay Oscar.
Argo's production design, costumes, hair and make-up, are all first rate and integral to selling the story. It's like taking a time machine to the seventies, but the real seventies, not some disco fueled, big hair nonsense. I can't list all the people involved, but the crew can give themselves a hand for making Argo entirely believable. This is especially evident in the Iran scenes. The city of Tehran, the mountains in the background, the people, the use of real footage, all of these elements contribute to a high degree of credibility. I tip my hat to Argo's producer, Grant Heslov. Heslov is George Clooney's production partner. They produced Good Night and Good Luck, The Ides of March, and The American to name a few. Argo is their best film yet.
Argo is Ben Affleck's masterpiece. He continues to get better with every film. What makes Argo a substantial leap for him is that it is out of his comfort zone. Affleck's previous films have been set in Boston. He was able to rely on his familiarity with that city and its people as the core of Goodwill Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town. Argo is a completely different animal. It is an espionage thriller set against a historic Cold War event. I truly believe that the sum of his experience as an actor, writer, and director prepared him to make a film of this caliber. Argo is the work of a seasoned, veteran filmmaker. Ben Affleck is exceptional here and soundly deserves every accolade.