Director: Ben Affleck
Rating R. Running Time: 120 mins.
Stars: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin
Truth is stranger than fiction, it's a fact; but when truth and fiction morph into each other, the strangeness factor increases exponentially. That's what happens in Argo, director/star Ben Affleck's ingenious take on the real-life CIA mission that rescued six Americans during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis.
When student radicals overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage, six embassy workers managed to escape to the residence of the Canadian ambassador. There they sat for months, unable to even show their faces in the windows for fear of capture. It was then that CIA operative Tony Mendez (studiously played here by Affleck) hatched a so-crazy-it-just-might-work plot: He'd enter Iran posing as a Canadian film producer scouting locations for a science fiction film, then introduce the six fugitives as his crew. Finally, they'd all leave on a commercial flight to freedom.
From the start in Argo, Mendez's CIA bosses think his is a hare-brained scheme. But they've got nothing better to offer (other than providing the fugitives with bicycles, which they would then pedal 300 miles to the border). The movie scheme is sanctioned, but the whole thing needs to look good in case the Iranians get suspicious. So Mendez goes to Hollywood to enlist the help of a real movie producer (Alan Arkin) and a master makeup artist (John Goodman). Determined to find what Arkin's producer describes as a "hit fake movie," they pore over scripts, finally settling on an abysmal Star Wars rip-off called Argo.
Mendez slips into Iran and goes about his business, dutifully convincing the authorities that he really does want to make a film amid all the Ayatollah insanity. He coaches the fugitives on their new identities and painstakingly fakes their new passports. Understandably, the six are doubtful the plan can work, but they soon realize they have no choice. To remind us of just how high the stakes are, Affleck frequently gives us glimpses of life for the 52 hostages — sleeping on floors, paraded in blindfolds before violent crowds and, in one harrowing scene, subjected to a mock firing squad.
That latter scene is brilliantly handled by Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio as the naked brutality of the Iranians is juxtaposed with a gala public Hollywood run-through of the Argo script. The patently absurd script reading — complete with hopeful actors dressed as robots and intergalactic princesses — borders on the ludicrous. Yet it is from this very exercise in Tinseltown excess that the lives of six Americans dangle.
Arkin and Goodman are deliciously energetic in their roles as lifelong fantasymakers who, for once, get to do something real. Bryan Cranston, as Mendez' supportive CIA boss, turns what is usually a thankless role ("You've got 17 hours to get them out of there!!") into a lovingly nuanced portrayal of a guy driven by a deeply felt affection for humanity.
"If you want recognition," he tells Mendez, "join the circus."
"I thought we did," Mendez responds.
Indeed, there are three rings of action and intrigue and more going on in Argo; enough, perhaps, to even warrant buying a ticket for another show, just to enjoy Ben Affleck's high wire act one more time.