Argo brings the Canadian Caper to life
‘Argo’ tells the now-declassified story of the rescue of six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis, showing that heroism can come from all quarters.
Argo is a story about heroes. Based on the true story of six Americans rescued from Iran in 1980 during the hostage crisis, the story follows CIA operations officer Tony Mendez as he takes on the near-impossible task of the rescue. Ben Affleck brings Mendez – and the film in general in his role as director – to the screen as a different type of spy; he’s not James Bond – or Jack Ryan even. But Argo works so incredibly well because it is measured and fraught with a different kind of tension than usually seen in spy flicks.
Mendez’ operation to get the six out – often referred to as the Canadian Caper – was “the best bad idea” the CIA had for their rescue. They had escaped the embassy just before it was completely overrun and were hiding out in the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Mendez created an elaborate fake Hollywood film production, with the help of previous collaborator and make-up expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). He then traveled to Iran and attempted to walk the six out through airport security that would make the TSA look like elementary school crossing guards with a paper-thin cover as the Canadian film crew. Like I said … the “best bad idea” they had.
As with any film based on real events, there are several changes from the real history to make the story fit the narrative better (things like that the six were actually spread out between two houses and that they didn’t originally escape the Embassy together) but none that actually altered the essence of what happened, and the heroism that the myriad characters portrayed. From Taylor putting he and his wife at incredible risk for housing the Americans to Mendez traveling to Iran while the secret police were ruling with an iron fist to the team in Hollywood willing to toss out their reputations in the name of patriotism, everyone was on the “right side” of this story. Even the office types at CIA headquarters knew that to protect the hostages still in country that the truth couldn’t be told – it wasn’t until President Clinton declassified the operation in 1997 that the real story was finally made public.
Considering my often-times irreverent sense of humor, I almost opened this review with, “Affleck, you da bomb in Phantoms, yo!” I think Affleck the actor gets an incredibly bad rap. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time (if you’ve never made the connection behind that particular embedded link, prepare to have your mind blown). But he has truly discovered his gift as a filmmaker in his move to directing. I enjoyed Gone, Baby, Gone and thought The Town was phenomenal, but he has really raised his game here. There’s not an aspect of this film that doesn’t work incredibly well.
A cast that includes actors like John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler and Bryan Cranston should produce great performances. But what is most surprising is how memorable some of the performances are with so little time on-screen. Chandler barely has two scenes, but his character is fully formed, avoiding the pitfalls of a clichéd senior government official afraid to commit to a risky operation. Familiar faces pop up throughout the flick, fading to the background as quickly as they rose to the forefront. It is impressive how well the entire cast makes an impact throughout the flick.
I especially enjoyed the beginning of the film, which did a wonderful job setting up the pertinent history to the story. Using a combination of archival footage, computer generated animation and – I suspect – newly shot footage, the introduction was informative and not condescending – very much like the sequence that likely inspired it from The Kingdom. To understand Argo, the audience must comprehend the historical context in which the story is told, and they did a skillful job at ensuring that.
Argo is a different kind of spy-thriller. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking or new, but it revels in a post-Homeland world, where audiences appreciate that this type of story can be told full of tension but lacking tent pole action set pieces. Ben Affleck has proven once again his chops as a director – in my eyes he’s got a very good chance at an Oscar nomination – especially in coaxing a series of small but powerful performances from a solid ensemble cast.