In this era of super-spies – Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and James Bond – it is refreshing to watch a movie about a real spy, who just does his job without any over-the-top heroics. I’m talking about the character of Tony Mendez played with admirable restraint by Ben Affleck in Argo.
Although based on a true story, screenwriter Chris Terio has taken several liberties in order to build up the tension, especially towards the end. In spite of all that, this is a spy film without femme fatales, gadgets or high-speed car chases. Heck, the hero doesn’t even carry a gun!
As perhaps everyone knows by now, Argo tells the story of a daring plan (“the best of all the bad ideas”, as described by one of the characters in the film) to exfiltrate 6 American embassy staff out of Iran in the midst of the US hostage crisis of 1979-81. The deed is accomplished by a single CIA exfiltration specialist, Tony Mendez, who enters Iran under the pretext of scouting locations for a science fiction movie named Argo. In the immediate years following the worldwide success of Star Wars, Hollywood was inundated with such knock-offs, which like Star Wars would use exotic locations in the Middle East to represent alien planetscapes. In order to make the story hold water, Mr. Mendez worked with a couple of people in Hollywood to set up a genuine production for the movie, including purchasing the script, setting up a public reading with actors and cast members and getting an article published in the Hollywood trade paper Variety. All this was achieved in a matter of days, as the window of time available to get the embassy staff out of Iran was starting to close.
The actors playing the US embassy escapees are all uniformly good, Affleck’s direction keeps everything low key, with none of the histrionics that actors would be tempted to employ if they were portraying people who have been in hiding for a couple of months in a hostile country. But the real standouts for me were the two Hollywood characters who made the entire Argo project possible, make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin respectively. Mr. Arkin was Oscar-nominated for his performance – his 4th acting nomination in 46 years (yes, you read that right) – of which he won once in 2007 for Little Miss Sunshine.
As with all Hollywood films these days, Argo scores high on technical proficiency. The ’70’s make-up and sets are flawless. The seamless editing and the spare use of music both succeed in ratcheting up the tension. This is one of those ‘perfect’ films, which manages to hold the audience’s attention right to the end, in spite of the outcome being a matter of public record. Although I was supporting Lincoln to win the Oscar for Best Picture, I don’t grudge Argo its win. Perhaps when having to make the difficult choice between 2-3 very well made movies in a tightly packed field, Hollywood couldn’t help but pat itself on the back for its role in this noble endeavor!