It’s interesting how quickly events can go from being modern headlines to being distant history. For instance, the Iran Hostage crises was an event that happened before my time, but it will be a distinct memory in the minds of many people going to see the new thriller Argo. This is an event that happened a mere thirty-three years ago, and yet the makers of this thriller probably had to put the same amount of detail into their costumes and production design as the makers of the recent prohibition era thriller Lawless. It makes you wonder how soon we’ll be seeing “period” films about events like the Arab Spring or the Health Care Debate. No matter how long ago this happened it’s really shocking just how relevant the story of the hostage crisis is in this era of embassy attacks and ever heightening tensions between Washington D.C. and Tehran, it’s the perfect story to be telling in 2012 and with the right execution Affleck and co. are in the perfect position to hit a home run.
Many know about the fifty two diplomats who were held hostage in the U.S. embassy to Iran in the early eighties, but less remembered are the six U.S. diplomats who escaped the embassy during its storming and managed to hide out in the house of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played in the film by Victor Garber). Argo tells is the story of how a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) managed to smuggle these six escapees out of Tehran. Mendez’ plan was to enlist Hollywood talent like producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to fabricate the production of a fictional movie called “Argo” and enter Iran under the pretense of shooting said film in the country’s desert locales. Mendez thinks that this idea will be crazy enough to work, but he’ll need to both convince his superiors of this and then execute the dangerous mission in hostile territory.
Argo is an interesting nut to crack because there are two seemingly antithetical sides to it: that of a tense thriller and of a cynical comedy. As a thriller, the film works well from the get-go. The movie opens with a dramatic re-enactment of the storming of the U.S. embassy complete with the sight of diplomats desperately shredding and burning sensitive documents and ushering out Iranian asylum seekers while the crowd is eagerly pounding at the gate. Later, when Mendez is leading his escape there are moments of nail biting tension. And yet, the film also has a substantial amount of comic relief, especially during the sections of the film where Mendez deals with his Hollywood connections, who are exactly the kind of petty Hollywood “moguls” who have been extensively parodied on the show “Entourage” and in movies like The Player and Swimming with Sharks. The film also largely avoids politics outside of its opening narration (which wisely points out that the Iranians storming the embassy may well have had some valid beef against the United States), so those weary of “preachy” movies about the Middle East should have no problem with this one.
Affleck ably fashions the film after the political thrillers of the 1970s and even photographs the film using the kind of high-grain filmstock of that era. He also edits the film very smoothly and makes the whole film clip along at a very steady pace. However, the film is maybe not as deep as some of the Lumet and Packula films that it imitates. As well executed and topical as the film is, there is a nagging feeling that it’s still beholden to a lot of the same Hollywood conventions that lesser thrillers are privy too. There are a couple characters who seem to have been arbitrarily added in order to complicate matters, a few renegade decisions that seem to go against the protocol of a real espionage operation, and also a few moments that seem to have been somewhat contrived in order to make the whole operation seem a little closing to the wire than I suspect it really was.
This is not filmmaking on the level of something like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which also dealt with the fallout of an infamous 1970s event related to the Middle East and ended up giving audiences a lot more to chew on while also being a very effective thriller. Still, being “just” a very effective adult thriller is perhaps too difficult a task to be dismissed that easily. Every year around this season there are a lot of challenging and well made films like The Master that one loves to proselytize to cineaste audiences but in the back of your mind you know that recommending them to more casual movie goers would be to send them into a lion’s den. That’s why critics love movies like Midnight in Paris, The King’s Speech, Up in the Air, and Slumdog Millionaire. They may not re-write the cinematic rulebook, but they’re a welcome adult alternative to the CGI-infused blockbusters that Hollywood would otherwise be putting out and you can pretty safely recommend them to audiences of any walk of life and be confident that they’ll have a good time at the theater. That’s nothing to scoff at.
***1/2 out of Four