Argo: This Hollywood Version is Stranger Than any Fiction one can Imagine or Create

by Sandra Olmsted

Argo, the epic adventure, the political thriller, the historical drama, the sly Hollywood satire, bends and blends genres effortlessly in director Ben Affleck’s hands.  Tehran, Nov. 4, 1979.  An angry crowd of militants surrounds the American Embassy; the crowd becomes a mob and over runs the American Embassy. Inside the embassy, the staff frantically destroys documents, hardly able to believe the authorities will not save them.

Will the invasion of sovereign American territory, which every American Embassy is, lead to war between the newly-formed Republic of Iran and the United States? Meanwhile, six Americans take it upon themselves to send Iranians waiting in the visa office home and to destroy the paper and computer records of those Iranians trying to escape to America because the Islamic extremists will harm their own citizens.

The Americans flee into the streets with the Iranians and seek asylum with the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber).  If they are caught hiding in the ambassador’s home, they, the ambassador, his wife, and the Iranian and Canadian staffers will likely be executed in the streets. The magic that Affleck performs in Argo is taking a historical event where the final outcome is known and turning it into a heart-stopping film.

Washington D.C. While the Americans hide for 10 weeks, the American government knows that the Iranians will figure out that there should be 58, not 52, hostages, and in the film, Iranians are reconstructing the shredded embassy documents, including one with head shots of each American stationed at the embassy.  As impoverished women and children labor over the pile of shreds to put together pages of information, the US government contemplates how to extract the hiding Americans and calls Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA ‘exfiltration’ specialist who has extract some of the Shah’s supports from Iran.

He’s never left anyone behind, but this is a far trickier extraction with far greater consequences. Since there are no more foreign teachers in Iran, having the six pose as teachers and exit the country on forged documents isn’t promising. Six bicycles could be smuggled in, and the six could bicycle out 300 miles to Turkey’s border at night, but it’s the middle of winter. The “best bad idea” — and they only have bad options — quickly becomes Mendez’s seemingly far-fetched plan to pose as a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for movie. Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), who is Mendez’s boss and the head of the operation, hesitantly approves “the Hollywood Option.”

Hollywood, California. Mendez approaches his friend, John Chambers (John Goodman) about making a fake movie; Chambers introduces Mendez to veteran producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who agrees to the far-fetched plan. Just as Mendez is a real person, Chambers is real-life Oscar-winning makeup artist and prosthetics expert who created Spock’s ears for Star Trek and worked on two Planet of the Apes films. Chambers passed away in 2001, which is why his real name is used, and Siegal is based on special effects guru Bob Sidell, who worked on E.T. and worked with Mendez on the fake movie.

The Hollywood connection adds some comic elements and allows Hollywood to show off their patriotism, which is something that Hollywood always enjoys doing. The team forms a production company, buys a script called Argo from which Affleck’s film takes its name, places ads in trade magazines, and holds a public reading of the script — all to create the cover needed to make the location scouting seem real. Soon Mendez’s flies into Tehran. The stakes are very high, not just for the six hostages, not just for the Canadians and Iranians at the Canadian Embassy, not just for the 52 hostages held in the American embassy, but for the world because as history teaches us, relative small events precipitate enormous ones.

Confirming his excellent direction, Affleck assembles a crack team to bring this true life adventure to life.  Screenwriter Chris Terrio expertly adapts the files which were declassified circa 1996, a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez, and the Wired Magazine article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman into a pulse-pounding script although exactly how much fictionalizing went into making the true-life events into a film script isn’t clear.

Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto uses a retro, 80’s style, appropriately-gritty-at-times, almost documentary-style cinematography to accentuate the Hollywood sunshine, the confined office spaces of the Washington D.C., and the threatening darkness of Tehran while Alexandre Desplat’s music compliments every moment of Argo. Production designer Sharon Seymour and costume designer Jacqueline West recreate 1980 in such exact and seamless detail that Argo feels like a time machine. It is the editing by William Goldenberg, however, that gives the film its perfect pacing and variety from heart-stopping waiting to heart-pounding excitement and everything in-between.

Although Affleck’s performance may be the weakest among so many powerful ones, it too is solid; however, it is Affleck’s direction that’s the star of Argo.  After writing and directing Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck takes the reins and proves he has the talent to helm a sweeping, big budget work of art.

Who would have imagined that the “best bad idea” to rescue the six hostages and defuse the volatile powder keg jeopardizing the Canadians and threatening to explode into war was a fake Hollywood movie?  Truth, even this Hollywood version of it, is often stranger than any fiction one can imagine or create. Argo is a Warner Bros. Pictures release of a Warner Bros., GK Films, and Smokehouse Pictures production. Argo is rated R for language and some violent images and runs a thrilling 120 minutes. Argo is must see and already in the running for Oscar nods!

(More of Sandy Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinematicskinny.com.)

 



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