By Joan Ellis
Ben Affleck has hit a thundering home run with Argo.
As director and principal actor, he has managed to avoid excess and melodrama in a situation that lends itself to both while holding audiences in a state of white-knuckled apprehension. The fact that the story is true gives the movie a power that we would not otherwise believe. The early scenes grab us quickly; the epilogue (after the credits) is astonishing. So go early and stay late.
After 2,500 years of rule by various shahs followed by an interlude of fracturing nationalization, the new Shah of Iran (installed by CIA) was overthrown in 1979. When the U.S. took him in, Iranian rage exploded. As livid rioters scale the walls, personnel in the American Embassy in Tehran plunge into a frantic race to burn and destroy all records. In the chaos, six Americans slip out, eventually finding refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The British and the Australians had refused sanctuary.
It is impossible to exaggerate the panic and chaos of these first scenes of shredding, burning, tear gas, smoke bombs, and abject terror. By the time director Affleck conveys this piece of history, he has pulled us straight from our seats into the story where we will stay until we leave, haltingly and chilled, after the final credits.
Along the way we watch an intelligence operation doomed to fail. Choosing the best of impossible options, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA expert extractor of people in trouble, enlists John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin), famed Hollywood makeup artist and producer, in a fake Hollywood operation to scout location possibilities in Tehran. The six Americans will become a fake film crew in plain sight and will depart when work is done.
While Tony Mendez implements his operation, the hostility between CIA and State and the folly of the impenetrable Washington bureaucracy become obvious. We watch the extraordinary cooperation and compassion of the Canadian ambassador under threat of extreme personal danger. For the film crew, one mistake means public hanging in the town square. In lesser hands, this story would sink under the weight of its own drama. Instead, director Affleck uses an artist’s touch with a terrific cast.
John Goodman and Alan Arkin, in perfect comic harmony from 12,000 miles away, anchor the Hollywood leg of the scheme. Bryan Cranston is excellent as the CIA headquarters man who finally grasps the real stakes of Tony’s plan. Affleck is strong yet restrained as Tony.
As director, Affleck has filled the big screen with overwhelming imagery that contributes mightily to the tension. He brings rare balance to a historical incident that needs no embellishment. Only recently declassified, the substance of the CIA operation is revealed in a remarkable epilogue. As much as I may try to resist inflated critical praise or scorn, there is no alternative to saying that Ben Affleck has made a flawless movie.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.