In “Argo” director and star Ben Affleck has the job of creating edge-of-your-seat tension even though most viewers already know the ending of the story. Based on the Canadian Caper, a covert operation to free six American diplomats after the seizure of the their embassy in Tehran, the movie fleshes out the story with the addition of recently declassified details.
The action begins on November 4, 1979 as Iranian militants invade the US embassy in Tehran, taking fifty-two of the fifty-eight diplomats hostages. Six managed to escape, making their way to refuge at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). In the United States the CIA hire Tony Mendez (Ben Afleck), an “exfiltration” expert to smuggle the six out of Iran to safety. With time ticking he concocts a plan that sounds like something from a bad spy movie. Creating false identities for the six he has them pose as a film crew scouting locations for a fake sci fi flick called “Argo.” Armed with fake Canadian passports, forged documents and movie storyboards they attempt the daring escape.
From the old school warner Brothers logo that pops up before the credits to the beards, clothes and 80’s vintage footage of Canadian politician Flora MacDonald, “Argo” gets the period details right, which goes a long way to forgive the inauthentic feel of much of the espionage.
Despite being based in truth, the spy story has the kind of Hollywood feel that reduces the agents to stereotypes—the world-weary spymaster, the by-the-book boss wielding the “Clipboard of Authority” and hotheaded supervisor—and the mission to a series of set pieces involving split second timing and imminent danger.
But this isn’t “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” with that movie’s nuanced, pensive take on the intelligence racket. It’s “Argo,” a Ben Affleck directed Hollywood construct, and despite its overreliance on well-worn theatrics, a pretty good one.
Affleck and John Goodman, (as real-life make-up artist John Chambers, and part time CIA operative), impress but it is Alan Arkin as Hollywood mogul Lester Siegel who steals the show. Siegle and Chambers anchored the Argo plot by lending the Tinsel Town credibility to the project, and Arkin, as the more flamboyant of the two, injects some needed energy into stateside scenes.
“Argo” doesn’t have the dark energy of Affleck’s directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” or the thrills of “The Town,” but it is a competently told tale about a real-life event that sounds like it could only happen in the movies.
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