It’s not often that a movie has me as soon as the studio logo hits the screen. In fact, these days, after ten minutes of trailers, car commercials, and inane pre-show “entertainment,” followed by so many logos doing thirty second CGI soft-shoe routines, you often can’t help but be in a bad mood when the film you paid to see finally begins.
Argo, though, nails it. Since the film depicts the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, the first thing we see is the little-loved Warner Bros logo used during that period. It’s one of the many nice touches that director Ben Affleck uses to create the atmosphere of the late 70s and connect us with the events of Argo—a film with a plot so outlandish it has to be prefaced with “based on a true story.”
The film begins with a storyboarded “Iran 101” history lesson which takes us up to the start of the Iranian Revolution and the storming of the American embassy in Tehran. While 52 Americans are taken hostage, six embassy staff escape and are hidden in temporary security at the house of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Alias’ Victor Garber). Though most important American documents were shredded or burned, the Iranians get their hands on the remnants of an embassy yearbook of sorts, which lists each embassy employee by name and photograph. In time, with the help of children piecing the shredded documents back together, the revolutionaries will know the six they are missing.
Back home, the State Department invites CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) to aid them in devising a plan for rescuing the six hostages. Numerous bad ideas are thrown around, such as covertly delivering bikes and maps to the six so they can peddle to freedom, or having secret service agents pose as ESL teachers to pop by and rescue the hostages (despite the fact that the revolution occurs in November and new American teachers arrival might just arouse suspicion). It’s up to Mendez to come up with a better bad idea.
Later that night, while watching Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, it dawns on him that if he were to pose as a film producer doing a location scout in Iran for an exotic sci-fi film he could supply the six with false credentials and bring them back home. After the state department reluctantly accepts this plan, Mendez teams up with Apes make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to generate the necessary publicity for a space opera entitled “Argo.” This Stars Wars-lite script might be the only thing saving the six embassy workers from public execution, if Mendez can get them out in time.
Argo continues Ben Affleck’s transformation from late-night punchline to respected filmmaker, and the results are incredible. Unlike 2011’s well-acted but flawed The Town, Argo is captivating from the beginning, and the suspense drummed up in the final half-hour is unrelenting.
With a tight script, confident direction, excellent acting— particularly Affleck, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as Affleck’s boss—Argo is easily the best movie I’ve seen all year.