[This is a re-post of my review of from the Toronto International Film Festival. Argo opens today.]
“That should be a movie,” someone might say if they read the true story behind Ben Affleck‘s Argo. It’s larger-than-life but not beyond the bounds of credibility. But there are plenty of movies “based on true stories”, and plenty of those movies are failures. Affleck avoids the true-story pitfalls by not making the hard-sell or simply tacking on the “based on a true story” title in order to lend much-needed credibility. Despite the necessities of condensing and finessing history in order to suit a dramatic narrative, Argo always feels real. It lives in its setting without feeling corny or overcooked. With Affleck’s confident direction and Chris Terrio‘s sharp script, Argo is a rare thriller that uses brains instead of bullets.
Argo grabs the audience from the get-go with the use of the 1970s Warner Bros. logo and some sly fake scratches on a film that was shot digitally. We then get a brief but entertaining history lesson on the events leading up to the 1979 Iranian uprising that led to the capture of the American embassy, and the forced captivity of those inside. However, six employees managed to escape before the embassy was overtaken, and they took refuge in the house of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). 69 days after the overthrow, the U.S. State Department has a bad idea to get the six Americans out by using bicycles. CIA ex-filtration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) has a “better bad idea”: have the six Americans pose as a Canadian film crew scouting a location for the fake sci-fi fantasy film, “Argo”, and smuggle them out of the country.
Affleck has to manage the difficulty of maintaining the seriousness of the operation while still delivering some comic levity, which comes into play when Mendez heads to Hollywood to enlist the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Affleck manages to throw in a lot of good jokes in the Hollywood segment, but he never loses sight of the larger story. There’s one particularly memorable scene where he cuts back and forth between a table read of “Argo” and the abuse of the hostages inside the American embassy. The scene could have easily come off as too darkly comic or painfully awkward, but Affleck’s assured direction makes the scene remarkably compelling.
Where he runs into a bit of trouble is in transitioning from the Hollywood stage of the plan to getting the six Americans on board. Terrio’s script isn’t based on twists and turns as much as it’s about throwing up obstacles and finding ways around them, so we know the Americans will eventually sign on to Mendez’ plan. While the Americans’ reluctance is believable, Affleck spends a bit too much time on it, and the movie’s tight pacing begins to slightly sag as we hit moments that emphasize a point we already understand: the mission is fraught with peril.
Thankfully, Argo quickly moves into its third act, and doesn’t let up on the gas. Watching the complications of Mendez’ plan puts us right into the middle of the action to where we can hear the rapid, pounding heartbeat of the ex-filtration specialist and his fake film crew. The third act has clearly been the most punched-up real events, but it doesn’t matter because the strength of the direction, performances, script, and the pacing make the outsized events a delightful and quick-witted thrill ride. The solution isn’t about guns blazing. It’s about holding your breath and hoping that a harebrained scheme will pay off.
Ben Affleck has yet again proven himself one of the better directors working today. He makes movies for adults by never pandering to the easy thrill or the simple emotional payoff. He refuses to set up Argo as a facile “Good Americans” vs. “Bad Iranians” story. In fact, he goes out of his way to make sure we understand the complexities of the conflict, and why the Iranians would be so hostile towards innocent Americans. Affleck constantly plays to the reality of the fantastical situation, and while Argo may be stranger than fiction, it’s also pretty damn entertaining.