Capsule Movie Review – Argo (2012)
by HELEN GEIB
Argo is an engrossing thriller based on a little known chapter of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Six Americans escaped the embassy by a back door and were granted refuge by Canada. To use the CIA’s apt codename, they became the Houseguests of the Canadian ambassador and his wife. With anti-American rhetoric escalating and the country increasingly hostile to English speakers of all nationalities, CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed) invents a brazen cover story: the Americans will masquerade as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars rip-off. To make it look real, he enlists the aid of a monster makeup artist and a washed-up producer. The Hollywood-set scenes are an irresistible blend of spy game and movie business satire. With all due respect to the fine performances by Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss and John Goodman as the makeup guy, Alan Arkin steals the show as the producer. Screenwriter Chris Terrio is a graduate of the School of Sorkin and the CIA speak and White House politico banter are glibly entertaining. This is (high quality) populist filmmaking and the breakneck pacing and considerable humor work as a necessary counterbalance to the documentary realism. The movie’s inventions don’t extend to its historical reenactment of the terrors of Tehran, 1979. The notable flaw is the superficial characterization and abbreviated screen time of the Houseguests. As in the history books, they’re a footnote.
My thoughts on the nail-biter finish [spoiler alert]: Argo has been criticized in some quarters for taking dramatic license, particularly in a largely invented climax. Even without knowing anything of the underlying facts it was obvious the filmmakers were amping up the peril for dramatic effect. Simply put, their final escape is too Hollywood conventional to be true. (The parts about the fake movie, on the other hand? Incredible BUT true.) The “will they or won’t they make it” close call at the airport isn’t factual, but it is effective- and effective at more than giving the audience a thrill. Nerve-wracking suspense is probably the best approximation a movie can create to what those people felt as they sat in the plane waiting to take off.