Telluride Video Blog: Ben Affleck's 'Argo' is an Outstanding Thriller
by Alex Billington
September 1, 2012
Based on a declassified true story. Although it wasn't initially listed in the 2012 Telluride Film Festival official line-up, one of this year's surprise "sneak previews" is Ben Affleck's Argo, which he directed and stars in. We didn't expect to see it until later in the fest, but they opened with a screening of the film, and so this year kicked off with an outstanding, edge-of-your-seat thriller based on a true international story from the 1980s. Many people may already be very familiar with the CIA (and Canada's) clandestine plan to get American embassy hostages safely out of Iran, but if you're not, or just want a good inside look, it's worth it.
While 50 Americans are held hostage by the Ayatollah Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard for over 444 days in late 1979/1980, six U.S. Embassy employees hiding at the Canadian ambassador's residence in Teheran stage a daring escape. The film starts by catching us up with the background leading up to Iran's revolution and the Shah of Iran's coup and eventual asylum in the United States, opening with the embassy takeover, which is intense to see. In then focuses on Ben Affleck's CIA character Tony Mendez. He's an "extraction" expert and devises a plan to create a fake Hollywood film that's scouting locations in Iran with a crew of six.
That fake-movie concept alone, which we see organized completely, is fascinating to watch unfold. John Goodman plays legendary make-up artist John Chambers, who is drafted by Mendez, along with producer Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin), to actually create the project in Hollywood, with press events and everything. But then to see him actually go to Iran, introduce this plan to the hostages and carry it out, is immensely thrilling. I was still sweating by the end and sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire last half. Thanks to fantastic performances from the cast all-around, including many excellent supporting roles that really stand out, Argo is a riveting, entertaining, fascinating real-world thriller that will leave an impression.
Here is the video blog I recorded with Peter Sciretta from SlashFilm immediately after seeing the movie.
If you love movies, the process of making movies, or are a die-hard cinephile, this is one of those films that should inherently connect with you, just from all the inside Hollywood references and behind-the-scenes glimpses it has. By the time we got into the second half and Affleck is in Iran, I was totally lost in the story, nervously waiting for them to keep stepping along safely, not knowing what would happen next or if they would make it out. This may just be the most intelligent film Ben Affleck has directed yet. It shows not only in the story itself and the way he tells that story, but in his cast and his choice of showing various members of our government and Iran's government handling this. I still love Gone Baby Gone, but Argo is up there.
Finally, I have to mention Bryan Cranston, who plays the CIA's Jack O'Donnell, coordinating the mission. Cranston is given a key role in this where he really stands out, and almost outshines the remainder of the cast. But the rest of the cast is also damn good. From all of the hostages (including Scoot McNairy), to Kyle Chandler in a small role, to Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador, to Philip Baker Hall and Richard Kind. Argo is worth seeing for the performances. It's worth it for the story. It's worth it to see how, with some fun Hollywood deception, we can peacefully and safely save people held against their will.