“ARGO” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Oct. 12)
120 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Based more or less on true events, “Argo” is a hugely satisfying thriller that grabs our attention early and then with workmanlike precision tightens the screws until we’re ready to jump out of our seats.
This is no small accomplishment, inasmuch as by now just about anyone interested in the movie knows how it ends. But like Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” Ben Affleck’s latest (he’s the star and the director) is so effective that it keeps you guessing right up to the last minute.
The film opens with a hair-raising recreation of the 1979 storming of the American embassy in Teheran, Iran, by revolutionaries incensed over the long, brutal, American-backed reign of the Shah. While most of the Americans are frantically shredding sensitive documents, six take a back exit and end up as houseguests of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).
While these half-dozen individuals (four men, two women) avoid the brutalities (including mock executions) of the 50-some Americans held hostage in the overrun embassy, they are nevertheless prisoners. They cannot leave the house or make any move that might draw attention to their whereabouts.
Moreover, if captured they will not be considered hostages, but spies. A noose or firing squad awaits them.
The clock is ticking. The Iranians are combing over shreds of official paper, trying to piece back together the names and photographs of all the Americans working at the embassy. Soon they will realize that six of the Yankees have escaped. And they’ll come looking.
Weeks pass. In Washington the State Department and CIA are paralyzed by this fiasco. They’ve drawn up a lame plan to have the six fugitives escape on bicycle across 300 miles of hostile territory. In winter, no less.
CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) has a better idea.
How about creating a fake film production company that wants to shoot a sci-fi epic in a desert locale? Posing as a Canadian producer, Mendez will enter Iran and petition the appropriate ministries to be allowed to scout locations. When he leaves by jet air liner, he will be accompanied by six additional members of his Canadian crew: the Americans, of course.
To make this premise as plausible as possible, Mendez goes to Hollywood to enlist the aid of Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and cranky old producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who takes very seriously his job of making a non-existent film: “If I’m doing a fake movie it’s gonna be a fake hit!”
That bit of dialogue is indicative of “Argo’s” very smart balancing act between armrest-clawing suspense and laugh-out-loud absurdism. The script by Chris Terrio (amazingly, his first produced feature screenplay) alternately shocks us (a man’s corpse dangles from a construction crane in downtown Teheran) and amuses us, all the while building skin-crawling suspense.
If “Argo” has a major drawback it is that the film seems mostly skin deep. What you see is all you get. We’re not talking sub text or complex character development here.
True, there are some clever digs at the movie industry. Arkin’s producer at one point ruefully describes his past as a lousy husband and father: “This is a bullshit business like coal mining. You come home to the wife and kids, and you can’t wash it off.”)
And as a history lesson “Argo” concisely (and without bias) lays out the events leading up to the overthrow of the Shah … you almost identify with the Revolutionary Guard in their quest for retribution after enduring decades of U.S.-sanctioned repression and torture. (Uh…could there be a lesson here for the current War on Terror?)
The acting from an accomplished cast (Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall) is unforced, effective without undo flashiness. Particularly telling are the internal conflicts among the fugitive Americans (Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe), some of whom fear that Medez’ outlandish scheme will be their undoing.
Istanbull proves a convincing standin for Teheran.
Mostly this is a great escape yarn, played out on a broad canvas and filled with fascinating details.
| Robert W. Butler