Review by Bob Ignizio
52 United States citizens were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries on November 4th, 1979; their ordeal would last 444 days. Only six employees from the U.S. Embassy managed to escape being taken, eventually finding sanctuary in the Canadian embassy. Unfortunately, they still couldn't leave their safehouse, so while their conditions were certainly better than those of their fellows, they were effectively still prisoners. But thanks to the power of science fiction, comic book art, and the movies (plus a little bit of help from the CIA), the Americans were smuggled out of Iran and back home after 79 days. ARGO, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is the more or less true story of how that happened.
Affleck plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, a specialist in the fields of disguise and extraction. When the Iranian hostage situation transpires and the government becomes aware of the six citizens staying at the Canadian embassy, Mendez comes up with the “best bad idea” for getting them safely back to America. His plan is to have have himself and the six Americans pretend to be a Canadian crew scouting locations for a science fiction film. To make sure his cover story is convincing, he enlists the aid of John Chambers (John Goodman), an Academy Award winning special effects artist Mendez has worked with before. Alan Arkin plays a producer brought in to add credibility to the fake production, Bryan Cranston plays Mendez' superior, and the American “house guests” are played by Clea Duvall, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Scott McNairy, Rory Cochrane, and Tate Donovan.
ARGO begins with a nicely executed sequence depicting the history of U.S. involvement in Iran using film storyboards that come to life. Once we get into the film proper, Affleck's direction gives it the feel of a seventies/early eighties political drama ala ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN. There's a bit more grain in Rodrigo Prieto's photography than the slick high-def look most films have today, and a real urgency and vitality to his camera movements. The performances by the main cast are all of a high caliber, and even the small parts are filled by quality actors like Phillip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau, Titus Welliver, Richard Kind, Victor Garber, and Michael Parks. For what it is, ARGO is an extremely well-made and gripping film, and despite the fact that we know from history everyone will get out okay, it still manages to create considerable tension and suspense.
What ARGO is not is an entirely factual account of what happened. Most of the changes are understandable in terms of streamlining the narrative and making for a more entertaining film, and to some degree a balance is struck between those goals and the truth. One of the less forgivable alterations is not giving the name of the storyboard artist whose work added a good deal to the authenticity of the ruse. This is especially hard to understand considering there is a scene in which we meet the artist, and he even gets a line. Just no identification. Since I think it matters, I'll say it here – it was Jack Kirby, the man who co-created Captain America with Joe Simon and most of the Marvel Comics superheroes along with Stan Lee.There's also some dispute over who came up with the idea for the caper, Mendez or Chambers. Read more here.
As is always the case when I watch any movie “based on a true story”, my main concern is not how accurate it is, but whether or not it's a good movie. A few minor tweaks here and there would have resulted in a more factual film that was just as entertaining, but the movie we have is good enough that it should inspire those who see it to dig deeper for the full story. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.