Somewhat to my surprise, former blockbuster star and celebrated Masshole Ben Affleck has become one of my favourite directors as of late. His 2007 debut, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s mystery novel Gone Baby Gone, was a disturbing and thought-provoking work that felt like the product of an experienced director rather than one behind a feature film camera for the first time. And I have nothing but good things to say about The Town, a robbery thriller that, while seemingly Michael Mann’s Heat set in Boston, stood out by turning an analytical eye on the importance of one’s roots and cultural identity.
Needless to say, I eagerly awaited Argo, Affleck’s depiction of the so-called 1980 “Canadian Caper” that saw a joint Canadian-American intelligence collaboration secret six American Foreign Service employees out of revolution-torn Iran during the infamous hostage crisis of that era. And while it certainly takes liberties with the facts, I’m happy to say that Ben Affleck’s third directorial outing is up to the high standards set by his first two.
It’s 1979: Iranians have deposed the American-supported dictator the Shah and taken back their country. Enraged that the US is providing asylum for the former despot, a mob of citizens storm the American embassy in Tehran and take its employees and security hostage. Amidst the confusion, six Foreign Service workers—Joseph and Kathleen Stafford (Scott McNairy and Kerry Bishé), Cora and Mark Lijek (Clea DuVall and Christopher Denham), Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane)—escape through a back exit. They are taken in by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber, absolutely resplendent in a series of turtlenecks) and hide out in his house as tension rises between the US and Iran.
69 days after the initial incident, the CIA learns about the missing would-be hostages and brainstorms methods of getting the six across the border without being detected. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck himself), an exfiltration expert who in a serendipitous moment comes up with the idea of pretending the six diplomats are a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars knockoff in Iran, titled Argo. Needing enough documentation and evidence to back this claim up, he turns to his friend, makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), as well as movie producer Lester Siegel, to actually finance and create publicity for this made-up movie. In a nod to comics history, Michael Parks makes a one scene appearance as Jack Kirby, who unwittingly provided concept art for the movie ruse.
Of course, the odds of this convoluted caper actually being pulled off are incredibly low. Ignoring the fact that all six of the hidden diplomats have to be coached on their adopted identities in less than a day—not to mention that the Iranian authorities don’t take too kindly to a band of foreigners wanting to use their country for a fantasy setting—Mendez is unable to forge the documentation proving these people actually entered the country as Canadians in the first place. Nevertheless, the plan is logistically more sound than any other put forward by the CIA think tank. In the words of Mendez’s superior Jack O’Donnell (the ever crusty Bryan Cranston), it’s the best bad idea they have.
While Gone Baby Gone and The Town were mainly character pieces, Argo, being a docudrama, doesn’t lend itself as well to that perspective (though, granted, the acting is excellent, especially from those playing the six would-be hostages). Instead, Affleck focuses on making it one of the tensest films you will ever see. While the survival of Mendez and the six diplomats is public fact, this knowledge doesn’t prevent Argo from being any less stress-inducing. From the opening scene depicting the initial hostage-taking to the eventual white-knuckle escape, the movie really doesn’t ease up. Goodman and Arkin’s characters provide natural comic relief to prevent the tension from being too unbearable, but otherwise it’s nail-biting. If I can really level anything negative about the film, it’s that it’s so dependent on tension I wonder if it’ll have the same adrenaline-pumping effect on the second viewing.
So see Argo. Yeah, some of my fellow Canadians may get up in arms over the emphasis on the American contributions to the caper, but shit, Mendez and company had to keep their involvement silent for 17 years after the fact. Let’s let him and the unsung others have their time in the sun.