As the 1979/1980 Iranian revolution reaches a boiling point, six of the American embassy staff escape the mob attacking the compound and find shelter at the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) in Tehran. Another 52 Americans are taken hostage. CIA 'exfiltration' specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts a risky plan to free the six living in daily danger of discovery. He plans to fly in posing as the producer of a Hollywood sci-fi movie, Argo, and with the six consular staff posing as his location scouting team, using false papers, lead them out on a flight to safety and freedom. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
A fake Hollywood sci-fi movie is the unlikely conduit for the safe passage of six Americans in fear for their lives during Tehran's 1980 political unrest in this top flight thriller based on a true story. It's a story with everything - drama, humour, tension and an emotional heart that beats relentlessly throughout.
Ben Affleck seems to get better and better: here he directs with assurance and perfectly embodies the CIA protagonist who puts his life on the line in a mission termed the 'best bad idea' available. Superbly executed, the film involves us in the terrifying political chaos, the human drama, the absurdity of the Hollywood factor and the unpredictable obstacles that make it an edge-of-seat experience.
Tension is created from the beginning with riot footage of the Iranian revolution when the overthrown Shah (put into power earlier by the US in a coup d'etat) is given amnesty in America. This backstory is coupled with the events of November 4, 1979, when six members of the American Embassy in Tehran escape from a violent mob and find refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador.
Wearing a full beard, collar-length hair and eyes gleaming with determination, Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA ex-filtration specialist whose mission is to effect their safe return. He is the heart of the film and Affleck embodies the essence of decency. The germ of an idea evolves while talking to his young son on the phone, who is watching Planet of the Apes on television.
With no other viable option to pursue, why not the outlandish idea of creating a fake Hollywood movie, with the help of his Apes Oscar-winning prosthetics expert friend, wonderfully played by John Goodman? Alan Arkin is good value as the 'somebody' producer who can open doors and navigate through the Hollywood bull***t. All the cast is excellent, including Bryan Cranston as Mendez' CIA colleague who is under fire for the decisions taken.
The creating of the illusion of the fictitious sci-fi adventure set in the Middle East is peppered with humour and forms the film's most amusing sequences. Argo is the title of the script selected and also forms part of an expletive-filled phrase that becomes a running gag throughout the film.
Humour takes a back seat when the action moves to Tehran and when the six escapees are told of the plans for their rescue. Their co-operation is not assured - some baulk at assuming the new identities created for them as film crew. Tensions reach screaming point at the airport at the 11th hour when everything goes wrong, plans are changed and lives hang in the balance.
These final sequences are beautifully directed and edited, as every little detail comes together to form a multi-layered emotional experience. As a real life human drama, it is extraordinary. As a thrilling movie experience, it is unmissable.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Until it was declassified in 2007 under President Bill Clinton, the story of the audacious 1980 escape from Tehran engineered by Tony Mendez of the CIA was a deep secret. The US even let the Canadians take the glory for it so as to avoid inflaming anti-US sentiment in Iran. It's a riveting story and makes a gripping film in the hands of Ben Affleck, whose previous action thriller, The Town, showed the depth and breadth of his talents - plural.
Affleck plays a low key hero. His Tony Mendez is a calm and determined professional whose marriage is wobbly and his 10 year old son is with mum. Although this isn't in any way central to the story, it is a crucial part of the film's intention to let us see him as more than just a CIA agent. Through his caring private relations we see evidence of his genuine decency.
As director, Affleck doesn't put a foot wrong; the film has heart and brains as well as balls, the screenplay delivering a clear and strong story without sacrificing either political or personal context.
Jumping off from prolific journalist Hoshuah Bearman's 2007 article, the filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate the escape story, down to casting look-alikes in the roles of the six consular staff. Mendez himself has had to contend with being portrayed his 40 year younger self by Affleck. He hasn't complained.
Superbly crafted, the film manages to seamlessly blend in selected archival footage with the new dramatic film footage, adding texture and immediacy to the dramatic impact. The revolution scenes are outstanding and visceral, as tension escalates and explodes. The risks are enormous - not just personally but politically, both domestically in the US and Iran, as well as internationally.
The support roles in the State Department and the CIA are exceptionally delivered (notably by Bryan Cranston), but the most memorable moments come from Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel the supposed producer of Argo and John Goodman as John Chambers, Mendez's prosthetics specialist film biz contact who gets Lester to agree to taking on this crazy project. Their scenes are mostly darkly funny but never at the expense of the drama.
Argo never did get made ... well, not the sci-fi script that was used as camouflage, but this Argo does Hollywood proud; it's one of the best films of the year.
Email this article
CAST: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Chris Messina, Kyle Chandler, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Victor Garber, Zeljko Ivanek, Taylor Schilling
PRODUCER: Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
DIRECTOR: Ben Affleck
SCRIPT: Chris Terrio (article 'Escape from Tehran' by Joshuah Bearman)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto
EDITOR: William Goldenberg
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sharon Seymour
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 25, 2012