Ben Affleck sure grows a mean beard
In 1979, as the Iranian Revolution was reaching its peak, the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun by revolutionaries and its occupants were taken hostage, a situation that had come to a head as the result of several factors, including but not limited to the U.S.' offer of asylum and medical treatment of the former Shah of Iran, a man whose power was grossly misused for his own personal gain at the detriment of the Iranian people. Add to that the fact that the Shah had gained his throne due to a coup planned and executed by the C.I.A. in an attempt to oust a democratically elected official, and you have a concoction whose volatility was bound to erupt sooner rather than later.
Of the American diplomats who operated the embassy, 52 were taken hostage and held captive for 444 days as the world's eye turned to watch the events unfold in the Middle-East. Six of the embassy's personnel were fortunate enough to evade capture and find harbor in the home of a Canadian ambassador.
Under the pretense of location scouting for a dubious sci-fi film titled Argo, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) infiltrated Iran as a Canadian movie producer, and with the help of a Hollywood make up artist and big-wig, managed to convince countless people that the movie was real. The United States government funded and signed off on the fake production of this fake film so a fake crew could be fabricated as a cover for those six individuals whose lives were in more danger with each passing day.
Yes, this really happened.
I hope you'll forgive the brief history lesson, but I personally believe that in order to get the most out of movies based on real life events, it helps to know how those events actually unfolded, and since much of what occurs throughout the movie is recorded fact, I'll do my best to focus specifically on the merits of the film without covering too much of what can just be Wikipedia'd.
It's amazing to think that such an absurd of a notion as a fake film cover was ever given enough mind to actually be formulated and executed, let alone by our own C.I.A. during a time when to falter was to risk the lives of American citizens. Tense is definitely the overall tone of the movie, and at no time will you feel your attention waver. Even if you already know the outcome, you still care about these people and their plight and you find yourself hoping that this "best bad idea" of Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez actually works.
That's more so a testament to the tight plot and excellent pacing than the performances, but by no means is anyone not pulling their weight throughout the course of the film. It's hard to take factual events and dramatize them enough to be interesting without overdoing it -- which is something the movie comes just a hair's breadth away from doing during a couple of scenes -- let alone to operate amongst such a large and diverse cast. Ben Affleck, as much as I respect and enjoy his work, is nowhere close to being a fantastic actor, and his performance here is a little lackluster, primarily because he plays Mendez's character straight and even a little melancholic, which is understandable considering the circumstances he finds himself in. The closest thing to a stand out performance would be Scoot McNairy's portrayal of Joe Stafford, as he is given a little bit more screen time and a more pivotal role in the group of the six diplomats, but even he just surpasses expectation. Bryan Cranston is, well, he's Bryan Cranston (that is a good thing), and I'll briefly mention John Goodman and Alan Arkin, simply because they are so very entertaining to watch and offer some much needed humor throughout the film to ease the building tension.
Again, this is an example of just how well executed the plot and pacing are. Most dramas/thrillers can't afford much humor without risking the loss of necessary tension, but Argo manages that ratio brilliantly and actually manages to be exceptionally humorous, especially during its first half. I would say much of that credit is due to Alan Arkin simply because he really is ceaselessly entertaining as a foul mouthed old movie producer, but it's still a feat in and of itself.
As Ben Affleck's third time behind the camera, I've started to form my conclusions in regards to his abilities as a director. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were fairly exceptionally films considering they were his first, and in Argo I think Affleck has truly demonstrated that not only does he know what he's doing, but that he does it well. Will he go on to be a great director? I can't say. I can say that I think he will safely find a place as one of the more consistently solid directors out there, and considering he is still relatively young, he certainly has the potential to grow into something approaching greatness.
I'd also like to point out that as something of a period film (the late 70's/early 80's are a period, right?) , the attention to detail is simply awe inspiring. The settings and situations witnessed during the Iran hostage crisis have been painstakingly replicated from specific events, such as news coverage, photographs, and film from the era. The production designers went above and beyond and their hard work really brings an authenticity to the film that should be acknowledged.
I hadn't originally planned to see Argo, not so much out of disinterest but more because I felt that I knew what to expect and that it wouldn't surprise me, and that still stands true. That doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing, however. In fact, I doubt there will be another film throughout the rest of the year that is this well focused and executed. Is it an Academy Award contender? Probably in categories that only the most rough and tumble movie buffs will care about, but sometimes, just sometimes, a well thought out film can rise above and stand on its own successes. Argo is just such a film.