Argo opens with news channel excerpts that lead up to a revolution outside an American Embassy in Iran. The people of Iran are outraged. The Shah that they had overthrown is currently reaping the benefits of giving the country’s oil to America by spending his final years in the comfort of American soil. The people want America to send the dictator back to be tried, and hanged. On that demand, they are uncompromising. And they've had enough waiting.
The rioters jump over the gate, storm into the embassy, capture the Americans and take them hostage. Six of the superiors escape through an emergency fire exit and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house. Back in America, the CIA is busy figuring out a way to smuggle these escaped hostages out of the country and their primary concern is how things appear to the media. They joke about it, throw ideas and then scorn at them. There’s a lot of biting sarcasm at the table. One man, however, has a crazy idea he actually intends to take through. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) plans on going to Iran pretending to be an associate producer and get these six escaped hostages back as part of his film crew. These six people have parts to play- screen-writer, director, location manager, cinematographer, production designer. They need to convince inspection officers and security that they are the people they claim to be. Tony Mendez gets the green signal from the CIA and a word of advice from his supervisor (Bryan Cranston)- “Good luck. The whole world is watching you.”
For the most of Argo, nothing significant happens. Tony Mendez is figuring out ways to lend credibility to this fake movie façade He needs a script, a producer, a grand opening. He steps into Hollywood. You first meet John Goodman playing the fat, funny guy and then Alan Arkin playing the motor mouth grandpa from Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a real distraction from the greater scheme of things and a nice way to lighten things up. But, seriously, why show us the riots with such intensity if you’re going to wander off into Hollywood sucker-punching? We even see a musical montage when this fake film is about to start production. It’s hard to take in all of this after the tense, gripping opening.
When Argo gets back on track, it grabs you by the ribs and slowly puts the squeeze on you. Tony’s plan is in motion and you know that the wheels can easily fall off. You sit and watch, waiting, knowing it’ll happen. But you’re emotionally invested, so you pray it doesn't. Argo is the best chase film with no chase sequences. There are no close shaves on screen but you see plenty. You even hear and feel the nicks cut through the air. It’s fuckin tense. The most effective part for me was when the security officer at the final checkpoint harangues them in Arabic. There are no subtitles to make any of that intelligible but the man looks very suspicious, as if he personally hoped to find something on them and settle scores. And then suddenly he switches to English. It lends him a terrifying air of unpredictability.
This is really one hell of a thriller. And as much as it excited me, I couldn't take the film too seriously. It’s a heavy (perhaps too heavy) dose of sensationalism and complete make-believe. Film-maker Ben Affleck has too much to do here. There are too many characters, too many relationships, too many perspectives on the situation and none to explore. It’s just too much to piece together. There’s not very smooth transition from topic to topic, situation to situation, point-of-view to point-of-view. One mood is broken before being replaced by another. And it ends up becoming less about the people involved and more about the situation.
Affleck also seems very eager to take stabs at the CIA, Hollywood, WGA, Golden Globes, Oscars, Warren Beatty, Production companies and even... Jack Nicholson? They’re funny but very distracting. I would've preferred if the riots had been shown as news excerpts too. Start the film light and humorous, then suck us into something like this unexpectedly; that I think would’ve worked better. All my quibbles aside, Argo is a fine thriller.