Argo: Hollywood gets the hostage treatment

R for some language and violent images
Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman
Screenplay: Chris Terrio

Ben Affleck’s Argo—his third directorial outing—is a timely tale with all the edge and suspense one would expect of a political thriller, but with the added bonus of having been inspired by real events. It is by no means a documentary, however. It’s a story filled with taught suspense derived not so much from car chases, but from carefully crafted characters and a realistic sense of urgency. Affleck’s latest is sure to be a major Oscar contender, and I’ll predict Affleck has a good chance of walking away with the Big Prize: Best Picture. The film works because at its core, it is a true story of heroism in the face of terrible odds, all for the good of others.

The story begins on 4 November 1979 in Tehran, Iran. The country is in turmoil, with protestors demanding the extradition of the former Shah who had sought political asylum in the US. An enraged mob storms the American consulate and takes all personnel in the building hostage, save for the six Americans who escape through the embassy’s back alley. So begins the Iran Hostage Crisis, which would go down in history as one of the most harrowing events in US foreign diplomacy. The six escapees find a place to hide with Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, at his private residence.

They’re not out of the woods yet, so to speak. Their situation is a delicate one, as their location must be kept secret. Hanging in the balance is Canada’s diplomatic status in the region, and not just the lives of the six, but of the 41 hostages who were not so fortunate to escape. The six’s cloistered living conditions start to shred the nerves of some members of the group, who can be forgiven for feeling the effects of cabin fever.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the CIA has been feverishly trying to concoct a rescue plan out of thin air. After rejecting several extraction ideas, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is called in by his boss (played by Bryan Cranston) to orchestrate the perfect mission to rescue the six. His brilliant scheme: have them pose as a visiting Canadian film crew scouting out shooting locations for a new “Star Wars-esque” movie.

Mendez’s plan is so crazy, it just might work.

He is sent in, armed with genuine Canadian passports and precious little time to prepare the six soon-to-be escapees to assume their new Canadian identities. He stresses the importance of each person giving an Oscar-worthy performance in order to convince the authorities in Customs that they are the Canadian filmmakers they say they are. “It’s pronounced ‘Toronno,'” Mendez tells one of the honorary Torontonians.

The CIA employs the talents of a producer named Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, at his comedic curmudgeonly best) and a makeup and prop artist named John Chambers (John Goodman). Siegel and Chambers know exactly what to do to make a fake movie look real, and pick a real script that had been languishing in the studio vaults around which to build their pretend movie. The name of the movie is “Argo,” described as a “sci-fi thriller in the vein of Star Wars,” a story meant to show the heroism of a man who stands up against invading forces. Knowing it would be a story that would resonate deeply with the Iranian people at the time, the duo proceed to buy ad space in Variety, touting the new outer space drama about to begin shooting. Their explanation for wanting to film a movie in Iran in the first place? Their fake movie is set on a planet similar to the ones found in Star Wars.

What follows is arguably one of the most nerve racking scenarios in film history. Will Mendez and his precious cargo make it onto a plane and back to America? Will they pull off one of the CIA’s most dangerous missions in history? There is an element of utter madness to the story that is guaranteed to fry the nerves of the most cynical movie goer. A particularly climactic scene at the airport masterfully illustrates the odds the group faced, and the fact that if one member of the group failed to convince Iranian officials, it would mean certain death for them all.

Rarely will one find a film with a plot so perfectly balanced between tension and humour that it can elicit collective cheers from the audience. It’s easy to manufacture thrills and drama from action sequences and explosions, but the real kudos here goes to Argo’s director and leading man. Affleck has officially come into his own as a director, giving us just the right dose of reality and Hollywood. He tells the story in a way that is engaging and thoroughly involving. By the end of the film, you can’t help but wonder what kind of movie the fake Argo might have been, after all.