Directed by Ben Affleck, Argo (2012) chronicles the CIA's 1979 rescue operation to recover six American diplomats who were unable to leave Iran during the hostage crisis. Written by Chris Terrio, the film is enjoyable, thrilling, and gripping, but it's not as daring, intelligent, or bold as past political thrillers like Frost/Nixon (2007) or All The President's Men (1973). The film features an ensemble cast of stars and actors that resemble the historical figures they are depicting including Ben Affleck as the protagonist Tony Mendez, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. It should be noted that Ben Affleck least resembles his character within the cast.The film begins with a digital recreation of storyboards as voice-over depicts the history of unrest within Iranian society leading up to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Instantly, we are teleported from these cheap looking storyboards to jarring handheld cinematography within a crowd of Iranian protestors outside of the US Embassy. The opening scene transitions between cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's camera and 8mm shots from protestors within the crowd which expands the perspective of the film. This scene feels like everything we've seen on television within the past two years as the Arab spring has sprung, and yet it's "1979". Within the Embassy, the six soon-to-be hiding American diplomats are watching the protesters outside as they break through the gate and invade the Embassy. Files are getting destroyed, people are panicking, and the six diplomats escape out a back door and manage to find refuge at the Canadian ambassador's home.
The news of these events hit the headlines in the states and the young CIA specialist Tony Mendez is called in to assist in coming up with a rescue plan. Everyone's ideas are too logical, but there are typically factual flaws that Mendez can point out ruining every idea presented. That night, while on the phone with his son, he gets the idea to make a fake movie when his son says he's watching Battle For The Planet of The Apes (1973) on TV. The desert landscapes and exotic elements of those films resemble Iran, so he runs with the idea. In order to get approval, all of the fake pre-production pieces of the film need to be completed so that the film will be a convincing real movie, so Tony Mendez approaches makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who connects him with Alan Arkin's character, film producer Lester Siegel. The plan: pretend to be a Canadian film crew shooting a science fiction film entitled "Argo" and leave Iran with the six diplomats who will pretend to be the film's crew.
It's a fantastic film premise, and so rarely do historical events actually make great Hollywood hits without finessing, but Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio finessed a bit in areas that didn't need finessing but instead needed more realism. Alan Arkin's character, Lester Siegel, didn't actually exist – and that's the way his character feels on the screen. All of his interactions with John Goodman are simply there for Hollywood laughs (which all of the jokes were shown in the trailer... not that it really matters). Additionally, the perspective of the film is constantly changing (sure, it's mostly Tony Mendez's perspective, but sometimes it's the six diplomats', Iranian soldiers', Bryan Cranston's CIA team, and most baffling is the Canadian ambassador's maid who gets her own awkward ending at the conclusion of the film). On the topic of the ending, the finale of the film becomes every cliché "we did it" moment in films. The bad guys are right on there tail, but they're just too slow and incapable so the protagonists get away – cue emotional music and people applauding and hugging. It's like the Ron Howard film Apollo 13, but unnecessary. One final thing: those digital storyboards at the beginning of the movie were awful. Why not have a series of actual storyboards sitting on a desk that could arbitrarily tell the story of Iran? The narrator's voice was distracting as well – Ben Affleck could have easily read aloud the history of unrest in Iran (or maybe even President Carter).
It's easy to pick at the flaws, but this is still a pretty strong film. The thrills are wildly intense at times, and Affleck's direction feels authentic within this '70s period piece. The flaws that I mentioned above don't take away from the film, but they are severely problematic. Had Steve McQueen directed this, it might've felt more like his 2008 debut film Hunger primarily following the six diplomats, and if Ron Howard had made Argo it would have been more of a character study following Tony Mendez, but these are all speculative what-ifs. Ben Affleck made the film, and this is what it is – and it's not that great, but it's not too bad either
My ranking: 3.6/5