Argo is a movie that will happily please a wide swath of the population, captivating and realistic, moving and intricate, broad and simple enough, and tinged with the thrill of reality. Whenever you base something on a true story you run the risk of failing to include some important detail, some small matter, but Argo feels wonderfully full, complete with the details and tension that elevate a great script and premise into something more — a fantastic film.
At the height 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 Iranians that the six Americans are part of a film crew, scouting locations for a science fiction movie. Unfortunately in order 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, and it all must take place quickly and secretly.
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, and every action undertaken by the hostages or by the CIA holds a greater global importance as the threat of all out war looms large. Every part of the scheme feels fragile, 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 person stands out in this sea of strong performances, and no one person is required to bear the brunt of carrying the movie. As the Hollywood producer and make-up man, respectively, Alan Arkin and John Goodman effortlessly 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 limp 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 overlord is equally enthralling and 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.
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.