Review: Affleck's 'Argo' is a Superbly Absurd and Suspenseful Story

October 12, 2012


It only seems natural Ben Affleck would take on a period piece at some point in his directing career. After creating a sense of place with the Boston-centric Gone Baby Gone and The Town, he's branched out with his latest, Argo, to capture a sense of time, this being the late '70s/early '80s and the real events surrounding getting six Americans out of Iran during the Iranian Revolution. He does so with a near-flawless effort, and his latest film only slips from being incredibly gripping and fascinating when it heads to Hollywood. Affleck has trouble there, but the film remains engrossing and highly entertaining.

Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, an extraction specialist for the CIA who is called in after the Revolution breaks out, 52 American hostages are taken, and six embassy workers find their way out and into hiding. With tensions boiling, weeks slipping by, and no real plan to get the workers out of Iran safely, Mendez turns his attention to world of filmmaking. Or fake filmmaking as the story goes. He designs a plan to go into the country under the guise of being a Canadian filmmaker making a science fiction film called Argo with the six being his location scouts. The only catch is this fake film has to appear very real, and the embassy workers have to have their cover identities down pat.

Telling this story was an interesting choice for Affleck, directing a film for the first time whose screenplay he had no hand in. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay from an article by Joshuah Bearman, but Affleck takes this screenplay and turns his gifts as a director on this so-strange-it-has-to-be-true story. What those gifts put into the film is a look and feel of the time in which it takes place, Affleck bringing the period to life with much more than just haircuts and classic cars. Even the opening Warner Brothers logo has gone '70s retro and little pops and scratches, what some would call the "Grindhouse Effect", give Argo the impression of being a film from the time.

Argo - Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston

But more so than simply capturing a time and place on film, Affleck and Terrio craft and tell a story here that is every bit as suspenseful as it is engaging. He cuts back and forth between Mendez trying to get the CIA to back his plan and the embassy workers hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Recreating the streets of Iran during the time with an air of tension that couldn't be wound tighter, the film offers plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments even if you're aware of how the real events turned out. Apollo 13 overcame the same obstacle, and, like that film, Argo's success as a stunning depiction of this important time in our history is only cut short by its attempt at Hollywood self-deprecation humor.

Hollywood likes to make fun of Hollywood. Well, Hollywood just likes talking about Hollywood whether it's good or bad, but the fact that Argo is littered with nearly obnoxious quips and punny sayings about the way the film industry works keeps it from being a truly great movie. It's not misdirected or even misguided. It's simply not funny, and a noticeable air of interest leaves the theater every time John Goodman as an old friend of Mendez's and Hollywood effects artist or Alan Arkin - Great as he may be here - as an aged and cynical producer show up. Their little catchphrase of "Argo Fuck Yourself" is cute the first time, not so much the third or fourth time it gets shoehorned in here. Fortunately, the Hollywood angle plays less of an importance than anticipated, as Affleck seems to know the story works exponentially better as a very serious procedural than it does a satire on the indulgence and ridiculousness of the film industry.

Argo - John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck

The entire film, both good and bad angles, is filled with stellar performances, not the least of which is Affleck holding his own and then some as the melancholic but determined and talented Mendez. You can tell Affleck had a grand time creating the character, gold chains and thick beard only being slight cover for the actors acting abilities. He's come a long way both as an actor and as a director, and Affleck handles both duties in Argo with fine results. The rest of the cast does wonderful work, Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy standing out as Mendez's CIA supervisor and one of the embassy workers, respectively. There are dozens of characters to keep track of in Argo, and Affleck's work as a director and the incredible work from his cast makes each character worthwhile, which makes the drama all the more heightened.

Argo is more than just a recreation of this moment in America's history, even one that was only brought to public light in more recent years - Clinton declassified the details of the Argo operation in 1997. It's a suspenseful and powerful look at one man's desire, willingness, and ability to go into the heart of danger and pull out innocent lives. The details behind this operations were as unbelievable as they were dangerous, and this film, aided by astonishing work from its director, captures every ounce of both the intense and the fascinating. Argo is superb storytelling by one of Hollywood's best up-and-coming directors. Just keep his camera away from the industry itself from now on.

Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10

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I gotta say, I completely disagree with the criticism of the humor in this film. (I heartily agree with the rest of the review, it's a fantastic, very tense movie.) I thought the humor was, besides being actually funny, an integral part of the movie. The humor helps to break up some of the almost unbearable tension the scenes back in Iran create, but more importantly, it underlines absurdity of the plan itself, especially contrasted with the gravity of the stakes. I didn't find the Hollywood characters flippant at all, rather they used humor to deal with the immense pressure they were under to make such a crappy plan work.

Sacrelicious on Oct 12, 2012


And once again, the real amazing true story of yet another event; the heroics of what Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor has been marginalized to suit the American audience. To quote Jack Nicholson: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth." I'll pass on principle.

Sanka on Oct 12, 2012


While it's certainly possible you are correct that the Canadians had more involvement than is presented here, there is considerable attention paid to the extreme personal risk the Taylors undertook to keep the Americans hidden and assist with the escape. Also, the film is based on a Wired article, the focus of which is much more on the "fake movie" aspect of the operation as opposed to a comprehensive recounting of the entire story. While I'm certainly not telling you must see the movie, I'd suggest you'd at least give it a chance.

Sacrelicious on Oct 12, 2012


the best parts were the industry parts. you're an idiot.

Don on Oct 12, 2012


This movie has paid almost zero attention to the details of Iranian revolution, e.g., the signs one sees posted on the walls, etc. are from a time long after the revolution, the dress code of Iranian people wasn't like that in 1979 (women didn't wear hijab), some of the Iranian people have Afgani accent, etc. Little details that only catch the eyes of an Iranian viewer make him/her frustrated because it's the US flashbacks are happening during 1979 and the flashback to Iran goes to say 1985 or so. It would have been a much better movie if the director had studied the details more.

mina on Oct 13, 2012

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