As they say on The Colbert Report, “a tip of the hat” to Ben Affleck on both directing and staring in Argo, a riveting political thriller based on the true story of joint efforts between the U.S. and Canada to rescue six hostages from Iran. You have to commend any director who can take a historic event like the Iran hostage crisis and still have us at the edge of our seats, breathlessly waiting for the outcome. History tells us that the hostages survive, but Affleck is able to take that drama and suspense to a level where the audience is as anxious as the hostages themselves.
The film opens with a brief history of Iran-U.S. relations, including the situation that lead to escalating tensions between the nations in the late 1970s. In the first scene, riots are brewing in the streets outside the US embassy in Iran. Things reach a critical mass and protestors storm the embassy, taking many Americans hostage. Six workers (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé) manage to escape through a back door and are able to find refuge at the house of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Trapped in a volatile nation, the hostages must rely on the CIA for help if they ever hope to escape.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA operative who specializes in exfiltration. He and his boss, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) shoot down a series of proposed ideas and come up with a very unconventional mission for extracting the hostages. Tony will pose as a Canadian film producer and the hostages will be his film crew, allowing them to move in and out of Tehran without being detected. While the CIA thinks this is a harebrained scheme at best, Tony enlists the help of Hollywood producers Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) to help him create a fake sci-fi movie for a solid cover story. The plan finally kicks into action and the audience is left biting their nails as they watch it play out.
No one should be on high alert throughout an entire movie, so Affleck allows us to take a breath with some perfectly timed levity, which relaxes us, if only for a brief moment. He takes a validated jab at the absurdities of Hollywood films and makes us appreciate it for an entirely new reason.
The cast delivers on this as well. If you stay until the end credits (and you should) you will see how closely he cast the actors to resemble the hostages and, in so doing, you are never taken out of the crisis by thinking superstar actor so-and-so is doing a great job, instead you believe these are those hostages and you are emotionally invested in them.
Yes, of course, there is creative license, but it hasn’t run amuck. The editing keeps us in panic mode and an audible sighs can be heard in the theatre at the climax of a crucial scene.
There are times when your mind wanders while you’re watching a movie. Did I get my parking pass validated? Should we get food after this? Did I put my phone on silent? This is not that film. You will forget the outside world entirely and be totally held captive throughout this film. Argo is incredibly thrilling and keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.