You never know your limits until you are challenged. Argo is a movie that dramatises this theme with intelligence and conviction. This is a hugely entertaining and satisfying movie. From the huge spectacles to the broad lapels, to the desks sporting rolladexes and not a computer in sight, the period detail is right, right, right. Sit back and drop into 1979.
In the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, the CIA endeavored to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran, hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Argo director Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who is an expert at getting people out of difficult situations. Though there are several plans on the table, the final one involves Mendez convincing the Iranian authorities that the six Americans are part of a film crew, scouting locations for a science fiction movie. To make their work convincing, Mendez will need to enlist the help of a well-known Hollywood make-up man, rope in a producer, and set up a real film production company. People’s lives depend on the success of the imaginary film treatment, and it all must take place quickly and secretly. The tacky fakery of Tinseltown is realized brilliantly.
The film is set in 1979, and is thoroughly convincing, from the care taken with costumes and sets, to the less obvious details — fonts, music, small camera movements and film quality choices. Affleck is progressing as a director in a tangible way, expertly building the tension and effectively leveraging suspense. Parts of the film are downright exciting as you continually wonder if these seven people will ever get out alive. The threat is immediate and violent, as the Iranians are relentlessly searching for the hostages. Ordinary people perform small acts of valour, choosing humanity in the face of thuggery. Every part of the scheme flirts with fiasco, from attempting to convince the CIA to the set-up of the film production offices to the moment by moment existence of the hostages in a time and place where Americans could not have been more unwelcome.
The performances are finely tuned and a great example of ensemble acting. No one actor stands out in this ensemble of strong performances. As the Hollywood producer and make-up man, respectively, Alan Arkin and John Goodman hilariously steal every scene they’re in, and Affleck hands it to them on a golden platter when he’s around them, failing to even really try for anything more than a self-effacing presence on his part. In fact much of Affleck’s performance is quiet and unassuming, which allows for everyone else to shine all the more. If it’s intentional, it’s a genius move that is highly effective. Bryan Cranston as a CIA senior administrator is equally enthralling. The six hostages, played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe and Rory Cochrane, are the picture of fear and uncertainty. Moreover, they are the physical doubles of the real hostages.
There are some genuinely funny moments in the film, comedy highlighted at the exact appropriate time, much of it coming from the scenes in Hollywood. The Hollywood aspect of the film is remarkable, from the idea that it’s really that easy to set a picture up, to the bravado and backslapping as they attempt to get press enough to convince the Iranians that Argo is a real film. It gets a little “inside baseball” at times, but mostly it’s exactly what people might assume the process to be like. The joy of the Hollywood scenes comes from the fact that while movie buffs will find them extra hilarious, regular people won’t be alienated.
That is the greatest strength of Argo — that there’s something for everyone, and not in a pandering or idiotic way. There’s no shortcuts taken here, just strong storytelling and characters we can’t wait to explore. So rarely do we see movies that remind us of how much we really enjoy movies. Movies so holistic and carefully rendered from beginning to end, with a story that intrigues, performances that are mesmerizing and details that have been considered and chosen with care, and in that respect, Argo is a particular sort of gift.