Jack O’Donnell: Bryan Cranston
Lester Siegel: Alan Arkin
John Chambers: John Goodman
Ken Taylor: Victor Garber
Bob Anders: Tate Donovan
Cora Lijek: Clea DuVall
Joe Stafford: Scoot McNairy
Lee Schatz: Rory Cochran
Mark Lijek: Christopher Denham
Kathy Stafford: Kerry Bishé
Hamilton Jordan: Kyle Chandler
Malinov: Chris Messina
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Ben Affleck. Written by Chris Terrio. Based on the books “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman and “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for language and some violent images).
Ben Affleck’s new film “Argo” is a 70s style thriller set at the end of that decade, expertly handled by this filmmaker who gets better and more assured in his direction with every effort. Based on true events during the Iranian hostage crisis that contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s failure to secure a second term in office, Affleck’s film focuses on the less publicly known story of six Americans who escaped the American embassy as Iranian rebels were overrunning it. The escapees hid out for months at the Canadian Ambassador’s residence while the CIA figured out a way to get them out of the country.
Affleck begins his film with a brief history of Iran, including some questionable choices by the U.S. government in supporting The Shah, whose reign is what led to the Iranian Revolution. After the U.S. allows The Shah entry and asylum for cancer treatments after his exile from Iran, in November of 1979 rebels stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostages for over a year before their release could be negotiated. Six escaped the embassy and it became the CIA’s job to sneak them out of the country without the Iranian’s knowledge. Such an act could’ve been tantamount to war.
Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, the CIA operative responsible for conceiving and executing the unlikely plan used by the CIA for the operation. Looking scruffier than normal, Affleck plays Mendez with the subdued sullen nature of a burn out, but he never falls back on the clichés of the unpredictable loose canon. Instead, Mendez’s withdrawn nature seems to feed more from confidence and assured expertise than a rejection of authority. He’s the best at what he does, that’s why they called him. The absurd nature of his plan is explained simply by the fact that there is no good plan that could possibly work.
The plan. Establish a Canadian film production of a Hollywood-backed science fiction movie called “Argo”. Mendez goes in as a producer with covers for the six hostages as the film production crew doing a location scout for their movie. They all fly out of the most guarded airport in the world a couple days later. “That’s the best bad idea we have,” proclaims Mendez’s supervisor Jack O’Donnell to get the go ahead from the Carter administration.
Affleck accomplishes much of his great work here with his casting alone. Notice how none of the American escapees are recognizable actors. Only Clea DuVall is a somewhat known star, but here looks like a different actress with long brunet hair as opposed to her usual shoulder length dirty blonde. They are all accomplished actors, including Tate Donovan playing the oldest of the escapees and looking much older than he did some fifteen years ago when he made his bid to be a leading man.
In the CIA he has cast more recognizable actors, but not your typical leading players, with Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights” as Mendez’s boss and Carter’s Chief of Staff respectively. For the Hollywood heroes who agreed to produce a fake movie and lend their names for credibility to a project that would never happen as far as the world was concerned for no acknowledgement and no pay, Affleck tapped two master showmen that everyone could recognize but could still plausibly play figures not in the spotlight. John Goodman plays the Academy Award winning make-up artist John Chambers, who occasionally consulted for the CIA. Goodman’s solid workman-like approach is perfect for this behind the scenes Hollywood master and American hero. Alan Arkin nearly steals the show, however, as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, a modest success who lends his name to the project for credibility.
Perhaps Affleck’s casting masterstroke, however, is the casting of himself as Mendez. He is big name Hollywood, and Mendez is the hero of the story. Affleck has already played fictional CIA hero Jack Ryan in “The Sum of All Fears”. Mendez is a far cry from Jack Ryan. Unlike the more typical Hollywood view of what a hero is in Ryan, Mendez is always calm, always has a handle on what he can control, despite a crumbling marriage. He knows what is out of his control. He doesn’t fight against plausibility. He works within the real world. Does he always believe that his plan will work? I don’t think so. But, he believes in his plan, and he knows its possible.
Casting is hardly the extent of Affleck’s accomplishments here, though. Affleck understands that the key to period filmmaking is in the details of the period. This is a political thriller based in the last days of a decade that saw some of the greatest political thrillers ever made in Hollywood. In order to match the feel of that second Golden Age of Hollywood, Affleck goes so far as to have the 70s version of the Warner Bros. Pictures logo open his film. Screenwriter Chris Terrio and production designer Sharon Seymour drench the production in late 70s references, from Star Wars action figures to program interruptions of television shows like “The Love Boat”. The costumes by two time Oscar nominee Jacqueline West are just as effective in setting the period without calling undue attention to the wardrobes.
Affleck’s camera is the most effective player in the entire production. This movie is pure thriller. It doesn’t waver its energies on emotional impact as much as most movies that are based on true stories. Notice his camera work during the embassy siege. It never stops moving, but the editing doesn’t cut up all the continuity of events as so many of today’s action films. This is the work of a master artist.
Affleck understands that most of his audience will know how the events depicted here turn out. So he tackles his material with even more emphasis on the suspense. While this isn’t Jack Ryan trying to stop a nuclear bomb going off at a national football game, he keeps the stakes just as high for the people involved. It’s only seven people, including Mendez, but their lives will just as surely end should they be caught.