Dramatizing historical events is never easy. For one, real life is much more complicated than the movies, and doesn’t often lend itself to a traditional three act structure. Filmmakers must balance the facts of history against the needs of story. Argo depicts the events of the “Canadian Caper” during the Iran Hostage Crisis of ’79-’80, and the exfiltration of six Americans who escaped the besieged US embassy.
Focusing on the CIA side of the Caper, the film’s central character is Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), the CIA operative who hatched the idea for the cover identities. By creating a fake science fiction movie, the CIA hopes to provide a credible cover for the Americans hiding out. Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) is Mendez’ controller, and helps navigate the CIA/State Department/White House bureaucracy. In Hollywood, Mendez is joined by legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and washed up director Lester Siegal (Alan Arkin) to drum up as much publicity and “reality” for the fake film as possible.
Unfortunately, with such a large cast spread out among three locations, some of the characters get a little lost in the shuffle, including the six American foreign service workers, Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark J. Lijek (Christopher Dunham), Cora A. Lijek (Clea DuVall), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishé). Their individual characters don’t run together so much, but neither are they that well defined. We understand their group dynamics, but I would have to watch the movie again to remember exactly who was who. Instead, the group acts like a cypher, allowing the audience to feel what the unit is going through at any given time during the mission.
Like both Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Argo has an excellent sense of place. While the former two films take place in Affleck’s native Boston, Affleck still retains that geographical familiarity in Argo whether in Washington, DC or Tehran. Adding to that is the excellent cinematography and costuming, which allows Affleck to incorporate historical footage into the film almost seemlessly.
Following in the footsteps of great historical dramas like Apollo 13, or Thirteen Days, Argo manages to build a wicked amount of suspense, even when you know the outcome to one of the most profound moments in US history. This is a masterfully crafted film, and as a director, Affleck keeps getting better and better. Argo is a must-see film that is sure to find a place near the top of our end of year list.
Argo opens today in Philly-area theaters.