With a dynamic cast and an engaging story, it would be hard for Argo to fall flat but considering Grant Heslov and George Clooney’s output as a producing team, it could have as easily ended up as an overwrought, insufferable look at international relations (cough, Syriana). Fortunately though, Ben Affleck returns to the director’s chair bringing his experience and past strengths and little of the overdramatic and deadly serious tones that normally populate this sub-sub-genre.
The film opens with a nice historical montage for the uninitiated or undereducated (hey, that’s me!) about the tense political environment in late 1970s Iran following an ousted dictator’s asylum in America. As shown by amateur video that looks every bit 30 years old as the rest of the film, a group of protesting Iranians storm the US embassy’s gates and take the compound hostage. In the chaos, six Americans escape and hide out under the care of the Canadian ambassador.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert with the CIA tasked to extract the six ‘houseguests’ as logic suggests if they are found, they will be brutally killed since the world’s cameras are not trained on their plight. With nothing but inane suggestions for extracting them by the government, Mendez seeks the help of Hollywood effects man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to set up a fictitious production company to sell that the houseguests are merely members of a visiting Canadian film crew, and totally not invading facist pigs or whatever.
Argo is a success for many reasons and most of those are attributed to Affleck’s increasingly impressive prowess at directing. The bulk of the film focusing on the immediate extraction of the refugees is stressfully taut as it seamlessly moves through the varying levels of danger and despair. The stakes start high but throughout the course of the film as the Iranians discover some are missing, the tension gets more and more unbearable. This transforms simple conversations between those trapped or a simple walk down the street into something more as you are engaged enough to literally worry about the fates of these characters.
On the other hand, Affleck also gets a turn at less serious fare which has mostly been absent in his previous films. The exchanges between Affleck, Goodman, and Arkin are honest and good-spirited jabs at the Hollywood machine (in the 70s no less) and invoke a few chuckles and moments to break the ice considering the levity of the other half of the film. Such a drastic change in tone can normally be a death knell for other films but Affleck handles these transitions masterfully.
However strong the story is though, the final act feels cut from the cloth of a substandard espionage caper and divorced from the preceding portions. The excellent defining of each character is cast aside in favor of reducing both the Americans down to simple and broad archetypes. The subtle unease of a silent, lurking enemy is replaced by a few overly suspicious Iranian soldiers who are too easily swayed by tales of Hollywood and storyboard sketchings. And the until-then conservative action is blown on a gaggle of soldiers running through an airport and attempting to chase down a jumbo jet in a police car like a few lost scenes from a random 80s action movie. The traditional Hollywood-style ending didn’t ruin Argo by any means but it did betray it.
Factual inaccuracies not withstanding, Argo is a damn solid thriller that has no qualms in wringing every bit of suspense and tension out of the events with great acting (even from Affleck himself) and an intelligent, old-school approach to filmmaking.