Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor)
Director: Ben Affleck
The Basics: In the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez is tasked to come up with a plan to bring home six U.S. embassy workers who escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Mendez, with the help of friends in Hollywood, devises a plan to enter Iran under the guise of scouting locations for a film, giving the six trapped Americans cover identities as his crew. Argo somehow manages to give a true sense of suspense to a story in which the ending is already known. Its tight direction, breathless pacing, and solid performances make it the first real contender of the early Oscar-buzz season.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Ben Affleck is enjoying a career rebirth as a director, but Argo also reminded me what a great actor he can be when given the right material. Tony Mendez is the glue that holds this film together, and Affleck wears that responsibility well. His performance is wonderfully understated; there are no theatrics, no “badass, tough guy” moments. Instead, there are quiet scenes where a close-up on his face speaks volumes about the incredible strain this man is under. Mendez has six lives in his hands, and that is never lost on the audience because Affleck makes certain it is never lost in his performance. He moves and blinks and breathes as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, and that’s because—in a very real sense—it is. The humanity that he gives Mendez is exactly what is necessary to make us care about this man’s fate as much as we care about the fate of the six he’s trying to extract. The scene where he unsuccessfully attempts to call his wife and son before getting on the plane to Iran broke my heart, and that’s all because of Affleck’s eyes. This is the kind of film that could be undone with an overblown performance at its center. Instead, Affleck’s quiet power and undercurrent of humanity keep it perfectly grounded.
Scene Stealer: Alan Arkin is brilliant in everything he does, and he was the perfect casting choice for veteran producer Lester Siegel. His sharp sense of humor and biting line delivery are like a breath of fresh air in this very tense film. While his character mostly provides much-needed relief from the suspense, he never takes over the film with his performance. He maintains a level of gravitas that shows that even this fast-talking Hollywood suit understands the urgency and importance behind what he’s being asked to do. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar ballot once again this year.
Bring the Tissues? This isn’t really a tearjerker, although I did find myself a little choked up when the plane carrying Mendez and the six Americans left Iranian airspace. The genuine feeling of relief was palpable, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that each actor played their reactions uniquely—some with hugs, some with tears, and some with silence. Also, the final scene of Mendez coming home to his wife and son was incredibly moving without being cloyingly sentimental.
Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay through the first part of the credits to see photos of the real people and events put side-by-side with their cinematic counterparts. It’s a great reminder of how much care Affleck took to show the reality behind such a fantastic kind of story.
Most Memorable Scene: While the airport scenes are probably the most taught and suspenseful in the film, the most memorable scene for me boils all of the tension in the entire film into one breathtaking sequence. When Mendez is driving the six to the bazaar to maintain their covers as location scouts, they run across a demonstration in the streets. As their van slowly works its way through the angry, violent mob of Iranians, the tension is so high I found myself holding my breath. The lack of dialogue besides the chanting and shouts of the protestors adds to the feeling that even the audience has to be silent and still while watching—an experience I’ve never had so intensely during a film before. Affleck does a masterful job of keeping the camera tight on the people in the van and their reactions to the mob surrounding them, giving the scene a claustrophobic kind of intensity that only a very strong director and group of actors could achieve.
Strengths: Argo’s greatest strength is its ability to somehow mine true suspense out of a story where the ending is a foregone conclusion. I knew the “movie crew” returned home safely, but I’ll admit that I found myself shaking as the Iranians closed in on their plane as it was taking off. The opening scene perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film; we know that the embassy is going to get taken, but somehow it’s still shocking to see the first protestors scramble over the fence. Much of that has to do with the quick cuts between the violence outside, the panic inside, and the quiet fear among the people waiting in the embassy. The film succeeds because it makes the stakes feel real and present in every scene. The film’s direction never strays from the grounded, gritty realism necessary to make this improbable story feel as real as it actually is. The casting of the six embassy workers was inspired in that they look like real people; there are no big-name stars here. The intercutting of actual news footage with the film was a genius way to deliver exposition, show the passage of time, and add yet another dose of realism to the movie. Argo is one of those stories so improbable it has to be true, but it could also have felt like something out of overblown Hollywood fiction if done incorrectly. With Affleck’s steady hand guiding a surprisingly balanced (and funny) script and dedicated actors, Argo puts you in the middle of the action, making you feel the stakes from your seat in the theater in a way that provides an adrenaline rush like no movie I’ve experienced in recent memory.
Weaknesses: While the scenes in Iran are a perfect example of understated suspense being the most affecting kind, the scenes in America sometimes felt a little overblown. The moments before Mendez gets the six on the plane seem a little too much like something out of a TV show or lesser movie, with all of the yelling about how serious the situation is, last-second phone calls, and other clichés. I know that the more frantic moments in America were needed to contrast the attempts to stay calm by the group in Iran, but they crossed the fine line between urgent and overdramatic a couple of times, which is noticeable in a film of this caliber.
Final Verdict: Argo is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s emotionally affecting without being too sentimental. It’s full of strong performances—from Affleck and Arkin to each of the six embassy workers, whose nonverbal acting skills were essential in selling me on their stories. And it’s told through the eyes of a director with a true skill for showing restraint, letting a moment breathe, and allowing suspense to come from the characters rather than from fancy camera tricks. I walked away from this movie more impressed with Ben Affleck than ever before, and I can only hope his incredible work both in front of and behind the camera on this film gets the professional recognition it deserves.