Affleck expert at recreating real-life tension in ‘Argo’

(Photo courtesy of GK Films)

Pitchforks: 4/5

Rating: R

Release: Oct. 12

 

For most of “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, the film works from the sheer level of audaciousness, only derailed in the end by, of all things, reality.

A film about a covert CIA rescue mission into the tumultuous political environment of Iran sounds like something only a skilled screenwriter could conjure up. However, the film is based on a true story.

The story begins on Nov. 4, 1979, the fateful date that the American Embassy in Tehran fell to irate Iranian students.

In the prologue, the audience is reminded of that forgotten time and place, which has been minimalized to footnotes in history books, with scenes starting at street level and alternating between the increasingly dire situations inside the embassy.

Scenes of American flags burning and Iranians stabbing straw figures give the scenes of workers frantically trying to incinerate and shred confidential documents a sense of anxiety as the Iranian citizens continue to breach the perimeter.

Affleck’s direction shows a level of precision and competence in his storytelling that displays much promise, which heightens the tension.

Hostages are taken, but six embassy workers escape the siege and take refuge in Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) house.

The time, as anyone alive during that period can attest, was that of political perils and those in the CIA who have been tasked to extract them have come up with ideas equally deficient in nature.

Enter exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), who proposes a rescue plan just as kooky and insane as the other seriously considered plans.

Using the clout of his Hollywood contacts, including an Oscar-winning make-up artist (John Goodman) and a seasoned film producer (Alan Arkin), the crew fakes the production of a sci-fi flick called “Argo” that will give the extraction expert pretense to go into Tehran as a film crew scouting locations, and smuggle the escapees out as part of the production crew.

The lengths that Mendez and company go to pull the wool over Iranian officials’ eyes is brilliant in its simplicity and audaciousness. The officials rightfully believe that something is suspect until Mendez shapes this situation into a feasible, yet unfortunately timed reality.

As a narrative device, it’s a terrific time capsule of just how low-tech spy agencies like the CIA used to operate during the Cold War.

Affleck brings a required understatement to the role, which will surely be overlooked by audiences. How he doesn’t call attention to himself is a bit of fine restrained acting.

The rest of the film builds off of the initial peek into the environment, where calm superficial civility can easily turn violent on a dime.

Affleck stages those later scenes of the embassy workers bluffing their way as the imaginary film crew with excellent craft and keeps building on top it. Scenes where they drive through protests and walk through an Iranian bazaar carry a natural tension.

Performance wise, much of the side players — aside from Arkin and Goodman, who always bring their A-game — prove fully capable, if not unspectacular, supporting work.

The six actors portraying the workers also suffer under the same confinements, although there’s a nice moment of vulnerability staged between actors Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall.

The only thing that fails “Argo” is the real life outcome of the operation. Affleck, the director, stays fairly close to the established history, although he would have proved himself the greater craftsman if he embellished and dramatized a bit more.

 

Reach the reporter at tccoste1@asu.edu