Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, highlighted by the forthcoming release of the next Bond film, “Skyfall,” we’re reminded of just how much we love a good spy story. But a good spy story is so much better when it’s based on actual events, and the movie depicting that story is incredible.
“Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is based on the story of the remarkable and extremely unorthodox rescue of six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis. Most Americans of a certain age remember the events — 52 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran in November of 1979 and held for 444 days. What’s not as well known is that when the Iranians stormed the embassy, six Americans managed to escape. While their story was reported at the time, it became a footnote to the overall hostage crisis and the details regarding their rescue remained classified until 1997.
Ben Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, who was an exfiltration expert specializing in sneaking into foreign and hostile territories and extracting American citizens. The six Americans who escaped the embassy were hiding at the home of then-Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played by Victor Garber). Before Mendez’s involvement, the government’s best rescue plan involved sneaking into Iran and furnishing the American escapees with bicycles. This was one of many ill-conceived ideas but in fairness, the unprecedented situation was uniquely complex and required a solution from outside of the box.
Enter Mendez. When we meet him, he doesn’t seem like any sort of super spy. Instead, he’s the epitome of human: wallowing in self-pity, using alcohol to dull the pain of a separation from his wife and 10-year-old son. Downtrodden Mendez serves as a metaphor for the times. In fact, Affleck and writer Chris Terrio do such a wonderful job adding layers to Mendez as a character, we don’t just have empathy for him — we feel everything this man is feeling.
Tony’s plan comes to him while he and his son are simultaneously talking on the phone and watching a “Planet of the Apes” film. As it happens, Mendez had a relationship with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who won an honorary Oscar in 1969 for his work on “Planet of the Apes.” Mendez decides the best way to get the Americans out of Iran is to form a fake production company and ask the Iranian government permission to scout locations for a movie, but not as American citizens — as Canadians.
Chambers is more than happy to help both Mendez and his country. However, in order to really make their film company believable, they need a respectable producer, and a script. The producer is the legendary Lester Siegel, played by Alan Arkin. Siegel is actually a composite of several producers but Arkin inhabits this role so well, he practically wills Siegel into existence.
As for the script, the one on which they settle is titled “Argo.” It’s a cheesy sci-fi film but it calls for some exotic, Middle-East-looking locales, of the sort one might find in Iran. Perfect.
Siegel arranges a high-profile script reading at the Beverly Hilton, which is covered by the Hollywood trades. They put an ad for the movie in Variety. Legitimacy thus established, now they have to get the green light — not from a studio, but from the State Department.
Also featured in “Argo” is Bryan Cranston, who plays CIA assistant deputy director Jack O’Donnell. After seeing Cranston in a handful of recent movie roles where he’s either underutilized (“Rock of Ages”) or his character is poorly written (“Total Recall”), it’s great to see the “Breaking Bad” star make an impact here as Mendez’s boss and biggest fan. While Arkin and Goodman get the majority of the showy laughs, Cranston’s humor is understated and effective.
Affleck and company leave no stone unturned in “Argo.” While they take creative license with real events in order to ratchet up the drama and tension, the attention paid to authenticity is a treat. From the facial hair, TV sets and furniture to the robotic 2-XL 8-track player in Tony’s son’s room, watching “Argo” is like peering through a window at 1980.
Ultimately, “Argo” is a bona fide, suspense-filled thriller with a terrific cast, and wow! It doesn’t matter that we know the outcome. Fists will be clenched, jaws will be locked, breath will be held and hearts will palpitate, all while you sit on the edge of your seat. If Affleck has committed any cinematic sins in the past, “Argo” absolves him of them all.
Five out of five stars.