Film Review: Argo

Writers Bloc is pleased to present film reviews by film critic Jean Oppenheimer.

Argo is such an entertaining movie that it almost restores one’s faith in the Hollywood studio system. High marks go to screenwriter Chris Terrio (adapting from a magazine article by Joshuah Bearman), who has managed to tell a gripping, dramatic story, while filling it with some of the funniest dialogue you’ll hear in a movie this year. And he mixes them so smoothly that the serious and comedic fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle — never feeling as if they belong in different films. Expertly directed by Ben Affleck — with a stellar, low-key performance from him in the lead role as well –- Argo is based on a true incident. A brief background is given via storyboard-type sketches and a voice-over at the start of the film. In 1979 followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran, replacing the dictatorship with an Islamic Republic. Fifty-two American Embassy workers were taken hostage and weren’t released for 444 days. Six other Embassy workers escaped out the back door and found refuge in the residence of Canada’s Ambassador to Iran.

The Pentagon and State Department scrambled to come up with a plan to get the six out of Tehran before the militants realized they were missing. The job fell to CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) –- he refers to himself as an “exfil” (presumably an infiltrator who extricates people from dangerous situations, but that’s just a guess) –- and is played by Affleck in what is easily his finest performance to date. His plan — one government official asks wearily, “is that really the best bad idea we have?” — is to pretend the six are members of a Canadian film crew on a location scout in Tehran. Mendez flies to Tehran, passing himself off as the film’s producer.

Argo is a smart, clever thriller that is mostly true — Terrio adds a few extra roadblocks for the group to navigate — and it’s funny as hell. The pacing is close to flawless, as the three strands of the story are constantly intercut: the chaos at the CIA and State Department; the fake movie that Affleck concocts with the assistance of director Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, hilarious) and producer John Goodman (also wonderful); and the actual rescue, once Mendez is in Tehran.

Even knowing how the film ends (it is a true story, after all) doesn’t diminish the nail-biting tension or suspense. One quibble: the six Americans who require rescuing are a dull lot, but the movie isn’t really about them; it’s about Mendez and how he pulls off the impossible. It’s hard to think of a film this year that is as wildly entertaining as this one.