There’s something a little unsettling about the opening scenes of Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort, Argo, which consists of a recreation of the original siege of the US Embassy in Iran that began the Iran hostage crisis. Specifically, in the world we live in right now at the end of 2012, it’s tough watching these scenes without reflecting on the recent events in Libya that led to the death of four Americans. Obviously, the scale is different and the stakes are different, but it does have a certain immediate context that it won’t have a couple of years (or even a couple of months) from now. I wouldn’t say that it affects the quality of the film or these opening scenes positively or negatively, but that feeling in the gut is undeniable as the waves of malcontent Iranians crash against the walls of the embassy before it finally gives way. You can feel the energy, the fear and the uncertainty in each camera move, each frame as diplomats and ambassadors try to figure out how to get out of this situation, or barring that how to ameliorate the impending doom. If Gone Baby Gone or The Town had not (surprisingly, in some ways) proven the sure directorial hand of Mr. Affleck, this excellent opening sequence sure does.
One of the central conceits of Argo is how ludicrous the idea behind the rescue operation intended to liberate six diplomats hiding out with the Canadians is. On the surface, the choice to go about this exfiltration (the lingo of ‘exfil’ doing a bang up job of making it sound cool and James Bond-y) by fabricating a cheap knock-off science fiction movie that would seek to shoot their scenes in Iran in order to cut costs does manage to easily fall into the ‘so dumb it has to be true’ camp, and of course it is true, the sort of conceit tailor-made for the infamous ‘based on a true story’ tag that can often lead to a film sinking or swimming. To be honest, a setup like this is about as close to a sure bet as can be found in Hollywood, and essentially new screenwriter Chris Terrio does a more than admirable job. It’s a simple structure, really. Act one consists of both the beginning of the hostage crisis and Tony Mendez (Affleck) coming up with his crazy scheme and convincing the CIA it is viable. Act two brings John Goodman and Alan Arkin into the fold as the Hollywood types who put in the foundation to make the fake movie seem like an actual thing, and act three consists of the actual rescue operation itself. It’s the perfect story, and it’s certainly pulled off with aplomb.
The cast is a nice mix of heavy hitters (the previously noted Affleck, Goodman and Arkin, as well as Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss) and accomplished ‘That Guy/Girl’ folks like Chris Messina (he most recently of The Newsroom) and Clea DuVall (The Faculty), and everything moves at the pace that would be expected. There is wonderful energy that comes from the Hollywood scenes that perfectly contrasts the Ocean’s Eleven feeling of the final act. The tension of the Iran scenes is suffocating, and contributes to the overall polish of the finished product.
Argo, much like The Town, isn’t going out of its way to change the world or be high art. It is simply presenting itself as a polished, well written and acted adaptation of one of the crazier declassified CIA stories in history. It’s not trying to be any more than that, and even though there are a few bumps in certain parts of the narrative that approach the sort of near self-parody that can come from sticking a little too much to genre conventions, Affleck and has crew have created an undeniable crowd-pleaser. It’s very good.