The year is 1979. A large militarized group of Iranian citizens storm the American embassy in retaliation for the United States taking in their deposed Shah for medical treatment. Six embassy workers escape to the Canadian ambassador's home. Their escape is a secret hidden behind the wave of media following the Iranian hostage crisis at the embassy. A CIA specialist is brought in to plan their exit. He proposes producing a fake film and flying the six Americans home as part of his location scouting crew.
Ben Affleck stars in and directs Argo, loosely based on actual events during the Iranian hostage crisis. The result is a clean, tight thriller that is perhaps more interested in the false movie front than the rescue itself.
Argo comes alive once Affleck's Tony Mendez proposes the film production front for the escape. He is given permission to fly out to Hollywood to meet with award-winning special effects make-up artist John Chambers, a CIA contact, to work out the details. They pull in producer Lester Siegel and go to town building an air-tight cover for the escape.
All of the best scenes are saved for Mendez and the Hollywood contacts. John Goodman (Chambers) and Alan Arkin (Siegel) are excellent as the unexpected CIA operatives. They voice all the doubts the audience could have in believable ways and tackle the project with humor and bravado. This trio of characters are the best developed and most authentic in the film.
The focus on the film cover story comes at the expense of the actual crisis the fake film is supposed to solve. The six Americans are presented as archetypes, not characters, and most of the actors struggle to do anything but drink and cry for their scenes. The exception is Clea DuVall, who clearly did her homework building a backstory for her character so her mostly stoic role could really pop onscreen. The balance is so off between the two plot threads until they meet that you might be more invested in the success of the fake film cover than the lives of the six Americans. That's a problem for a film about a plot to sneak six Americans out of Iran alive.
Despite the balance issues, Argo is still a tense and believable thriller. The CIA office scenes are perhaps a bit cliche, but they keep the story moving and add a welcome sense of context to the expansive nature of the escape. The final 30 minutes more than make up for any scripting/editing imbalance in the film.
Argo is an accessible thriller with a great hook and solid technical execution. It's worth viewing if you have any interest in the subject.
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