Movie Review: Argo
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Do not brush up on the history of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 before going to see “Argo.” It deals with a thrilling CIA effort to rescue six Americans who escaped the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. And it’s best to have a fuzzy memory, mainly because “Argo” expertly builds tension and makes you wonder whether the mission will succeed.
Credit has to go to director Ben Affleck, who plays the central character, a CIA operative named Tony Mendez. Mendez’s superiors tell him that the six Americans have been hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Tehran, and that it’s only a matter of time before the hostage takers at the U.S. Embassy realize that six Americans escaped.
It’s not as if the Americans can just leave the home where they’re hiding. They’ll need documents to get out of the airport, and they’ll probably be executed if the Iranians discover that they’re actually Americans. So Mendez comes up with an audacious plan for their escape. He’ll set up a dummy movie company, with the help of two friends in Hollywood (John Goodman and Alan Arkin), and Mendez will then pretend to be a Canadian producer who’s scouting for a location for an upcoming science-fiction film called “Argo.”
He’ll tell Iranian authorities that six more Canadian friends will be meeting him, and then he’ll give Canadian passports to the six Americans, who will then leave Iran with Mendez. The passports will have all the official stamps saying that the Canadians arrived just recently, thanks to Mendez’s expert forgeries. And everyone will simply hope that the airport bureaucracy doesn’t wise up to the scheme.
Affleck, who isn’t known for his acting chops, doesn’t have much to do in the leading role. He’s adequate, but the script doesn’t call for him to have much emotional range. In Hollywood, folks flatteringly refer to such characters as having “quiet intensity.” He’s a CIA dude, after all. And it’s just as well that the character is shallow because Affleck is able to focus most of his directorial energies on building tension and capturing the terrifying setting of revolutionary Iran with hanging corpses, summary executions, riotous crowds and constant surveillance.
Shot primarily in Istanbul, “Argo” does a great job of bringing back those awful memories of Americans being held hostage. Images of the Ayatollah Khomeini loom large throughout “Argo.” And to the movie’s credit, Affleck and the screenwriters make an early effort to explain the Iranian rage. The overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh is discussed in the context of his nationalization of oil companies. And the U.S.-led coup that removed him and led to increased powers for Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi is also detailed, as are the abuses of the shah’s reign.
Thankfully, the political background doesn’t overwhelm the thrills, especially the well-choreographed riot that led to the initial takeover of the U.S. Embassy, a confrontation on the streets of Tehran and a nail-biting scene at Tehran’s airport.
The action in “Argo” follows the Hollywood thriller formula, but in this case, the formula works.