Argo (2012) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Believe or not, it really happened

“Argo” is about one improbable CIA operation as unreal as a fake movie they used as a main cover, and you may not believe that the movie is really based on a real-life operation unless you stay during its end credits to see the photos of real-life figures involved with the operation. It did not look like a good plan to them at that time, but the Operation Hollywood, which was declassified in 1997 by the US government, was successfully executed amidst lots of risks and dangers, and six American people were safely exfiltrated from Iran as a consequence.

Many of you already know about the ending though the promotion of the film, and you can sense that some of its elements are fictions for heightening dramatic effects in the story, but “Argo“ is still a gripping first-class thriller which can drive you to the edge of your seat. This is one of those dexterous thrillers which play us like piano through its pure nail-biting suspense and delicate timings, and it is also mixed with right amount of humor to amuse and relax us from its high-octane intensity.

Its humor mostly comes from the comical side of the operation. For the operation, the people at CIA and Hollywood carefully prepared the production of a fake film which would never be produced, and everyone in the world really believed their fantastic story – even the authorities and revolutionaries in Iran. While impressed by the script and storyboards handed to them, they do not seem to think about the implausibility of the production at all. Seriously, who the hell wants to make a film in Iran when it is going through a very tumultuous state?

This outrageous operation was conceived for rescuing the people who managed to escape to find a temporary shelter at the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979. After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the massive revolution against his ruthless tyranny, the relation between US and Iran became more hostile than before as the Shah was allowed into US for his surgery. As succinctly shown in the prologue with graphic novel style, the Iranian people had lots of resentment toward the US government due to its deep involvement with the Shah regime, so they finally broke into the US embassy in Tehran and held the American officials as hostages on November 4th, 1979.

Six people luckily escapes from the embassy before it is occupied, and they find a refuge at the residence of brave Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor(Victor Garbor). Taylor protects them from the eyes outside his residence as much as he can, but it is clear to everyone that the time is running out minute by minute. It is the matter of time before their escape is discovered and all of them are identified, and it is quite possible that they will be killed as soon as they are found. The people at Washington D.C. look over several plans for exfiltrating them, but they only find none of them are practically possible.

While searching for a better plan, a CIA agent Tony Mendez(Ben Affleck) gets one nice idea from a SF movie his son is watching on TV, “Battle for the Planet of Apes”(1973), He will go to Iran as a movie producer, and he will disguise these six people as the Canadian crew who visit Iran for searching the suitable locations for their fake film. It does not sound very plausible, but there is no better plan(Mendez’s direct boss, played by Bryan Cranston, says to his superior, “This is the best bad idea we have, sir – by far.”), so his idea is eventually accepted by his bosses.

Mendez recruits two first-class experts in Hollywood for his setup: John Chambers(John Goodman), a make-up artist who won a Special Oscar for his memorable job in “Planet of the Apes”(1968), and Lester Siegel(Alan Arkin), a Hollywood movie producer with a special award at the Cannes Film Festival at his home. Through how they fool the people in Hollywood and then the people outside Hollywood, the movie indirectly tells us about the overlapping regions between moviemaking business and espionage work. After all, the success in both fields crucially depends on deceptions and guts, and how Mendez trains his fugitives with the fake identities prepared for them in one scene is not that far from the script meeting before shooting, As “actors”, they should convince their dangerous audiences, and no mistake is allowed for them because their survival depends on how convincing their “performances” are.

Through fun performances from Arkin and Goodman, the movie provides the welcoming respite from its very intense circumstance from time to time. Arkin, the master of droll comedy, is fun to watch as a cynical but wise old-timer who knows a lot about how the system in Hollywood works. The screenplays usually come handy in Hollywood, and one screenplay named “Argo” is quickly chosen for their fake SF film, and then, thanks to Siegel’s good manipulation, the promotion events are quickly followed even though they do not have a real movie at their hands.

Meanwhile, the tension level is steadily increased with anxiety and doubts in the Canadian Ambassador residence as the Iranian authorities are approaching closer to the identities of the people hiding in the building, With the tight screenplay written by Chris Terrio, which is based on the book “The Master of Disguise” by Antonio J. Mendez and the article “The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman,  the director Ben Affleck grabs us with the series of intense moments vividly presented by the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and everything powerfully culminates into a climactic moment where Mendez and others must hurry to board a plane while trying not to be caught at the airport.

The movie is so focused on the main event that its small problems inherent in the story are quite clear to some audiences including my fellow critic Omer M. Mozaffar, who expressed his uncomfortable feeling on the film while recognizing its strength as a well-made thriller in his insightful article recently posted on Roger Ebert’s Far-flung Correspondents. Though the movie has a liberal view on the Iranian Revolution and explains the motive behind the Iran hostage crisis, the Iranian people in the film are depicted as the faceless group more or less than angry and hostile mob. In addition, the movie does not provide us the alternative view from the other side or more historical background to understand these angered people.

While I agree with Mr. Mozaffar in several aspects, I also want to point out that one movie cannot tell everything about its story in 2 hours. There are other books, articles, and movies, and they will give you more information and other views if you are really interested in the real-life incident the movie is based on and its historical background.

And I do not think “Argo” would remain effective if it were less biased and focused. Like “Black Hawk Down”(2001), its thriller effect heavily depends on sticking to the sole view of the characters dealing with a very dangerous situation, and the sense of danger and menace is palpable in the film along with the growing fear and doubt in Mendez and others. Its sheer intensity would be considerably diffused if it diverged from the main plot for more background information.

While reviving his acting career after such disastrous films like “Gigli”(2003), Ben Affleck has also begun to show his talent as a good director through “Gone Baby Gone”(2007) and “The Town”(2010), and he goes one step further with this movie. The ambience of the era is recreated well through details in the film, and the movie is an engrossing experience thanks to its taut and efficient storytelling, Affleck may look a little bit awkward as the Hispanic hero, but his functional performance has no problem on the whole in showing an expert who simply does a job he’s very good at, and he also pulls nice performances from his cast, which includes many dependable actors like Bryan Cranston, Victor Garbor and Philip Baker Hall.

“Argo” is a terrific thriller which tells a compelling story which had been hidden behind one of the turbulent historical incidents during the late 20th century. I was constantly agitated while watching the movie at last night, and I was also amused by how a movie can affect people even if it is a fake one. These props for that fake movie look as ridiculous as, say, “Flash Gordon”(1980), but their magic does work during an unlikely moment when Iranian revolutionaries are completely persuaded by them. It is not easy to resist an illusion called movie, you know.

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