Review: Argo

Argo (2012)
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Directed by Ben Affleck.

“Why don’t we just give them what they want so we can have what we want?” I asked my dad when I heard about the American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. It was the fall of 1979 and I was in the fifth grade.

“Because if we do, what does that tell other people who want something from this country?” my dad asked me right back. It was the first current-events thing I can remember us conversing about, beyond just clarifying facts. One year later, Ronald Reagan was elected President and I was in the sixth grade, and the hostages were still there. A lot happened in that intervening year, or perhaps it was exactly a year’s worth of stuff and I just hadn’t paid attention before. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States boycotted the summer Olympiad. And in the next few weeks, the hostages would come home, Reagan would be sworn in (on the same day, in fact), the Raiders would beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and I’d be interviewing to attend the high school I eventually graduated from.

It’s possible that Argo, starring and directed by Ben Affleck, isn’t as good a movie about this time period as I think it is, but if I overpraise this film it is because it is extremely effective in one very specific way: it takes me immediately back to the time in my life where the world beyond my house, my school, and my favorite football team was revealing itself to me. From the film’s opening sequences, images of yellow ribbons on American lawns, chanting Iranians on television sets, and Ted Koppel’s bad hair on Nightline trigger a flood of memories in a way few movies ever have.

And it does it very, very well.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who concocts a ridiculous plan when the United States learns that in the takeover of the embassy in Tehran, six members of the American Foreign Service escaped to safety in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Posing as the director of a fake Hollywood movie, Mendez flies into Iran to scope locations, intending to leave the country with the six Americans posing as members of his film crew. Flying out with them means hoping the Iranians don’t notice that there’s no record of their ever flying in, and a lot of things have to go right in order for them all not to be discovered. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play Hollywood movie producers who help Mendez construct an elaborate story to serve as facade and foundation for the entire charade.

I was tense almost all the way through, literally perched on the edge of my seat during parts of the film. Affleck does a great job of capturing the energy, rage, and edginess of the chanting throngs in the streets outside the embassy. That TV news footage never got us close enough to those throngs to feel that energy, and as the Americans working in the embassy try to go about their jobs while the vibration of that youthful anger builds outside, you wonder how anyone there ever got any sleep or kept from going mad in those days leading up to the takeover.

The art direction in this thing is great. How challenging it is to make a movie look and feel like 1979 I have no idea, but this movie nails it. From the television news graphics to the hairstyles and automobiles, everything feels like 1979.

None of the actors turns in the performance of his career here; however, the acting is solid and difficult to find fault with. I have really grown to love John Goodman as an actor. I’ve heard people say he’s playing the same character in everything, but I don’t see it that way. I see a thinking actor who moves and speaks with a kind of effortless comfort that makes everything he does look like he’s not acting. The guy really knows his stuff. For the past few years, I have really not liked Alan Arkin (in Sunshine Cleaning and in Little Miss Sunshine, he seemed like little more than extra weight, tacked on to both films as surplus from the Hollywood Quirky Characters Store), but he’s really good in this, as if he’s taking notes from Goodman. The interactions between their characters are some of my favorite parts of the film.

Affleck can act. I don’t know why so many of my friends seem to think he can’t. I’m going to be surprised if doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Argo, and while I don’t think the performance is quite that good, I can understand the sentiment.

You could find fault, as one of my friends does, with the plot, which seems to contrive ridiculous obstacles in service to the edge-of-your-seat manipulation it strives for, and I suppose in retrospect a lot of it does seem difficult to believe. Yet the historical facts are difficult to believe too, and they happened. If a few things were changed in order to create drama, I’ll concede a few strikes in the pitch count. As a film-watching experience, however, it’s an excellent ride and worthy of its praise.


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