When better to release a film reeking of political animosity than three weeks prior to the U.S. presidential election? Or perhaps, an eerie echo of a recent terrorist attack might facilitate a bigger bump in ticket sales? “Argo” does both, and two hooks are better than one.
At Quality 16 and Rave
Though director, producer and star Ben Affleck (“The Town”) could not have foreseen such a serendipitous temporal correlation, “Argo,” based on events during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, hits theaters just one month after four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, fell victim to a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya; morbidity heightens as the event occurred on Sept. 11. Apart from bushy mustaches, bifocals, comb-overs and classic cars, the Iranian aggressors’ on-screen seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979 tendentiously salts the wounds of this recent tragedy.
The opening sequence is like a fire hose blast to the face: Affleck paints a haunting mural of melee as Iranians leap over fences, break down doors and smash through windows, while U.S. officials beg for reinforcements from the powers that be. When no military aid arrives, three soldiers on-site attempt to “peacefully” quell the onslaught by hurling tear gas canisters and trying to “reason with” the malicious mob. Negotiation proves ineffective.
While 52 hostages are detained, six diplomats evade initial captivity and seek solace with the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber, “Kung Fu Panda 2”), but it’s only a matter of time before those responsible discover they’re a few prisoners short. Racing against the clock, CIA Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) devises a rescue mission: disguise the Americans as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for their new Middle Eastern-infused science fiction movie, “Argo.” Why would the CIA ever support such a far-fetched course of action? Well, all the ideas are bad and “it’s the best bad idea … by far.”
Adapting Josh Bearman’s article, “How the CIA used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” as his first big-league feature, screenwriter Chris Terrio meticulously speckles dire circumstances with emotionally leveling gold nuggets of humor. His characters are as dynamic and refreshingly variegated as the kooky plot itself, brought to life by an incredible ensemble cast that includes John Goodman (“ParaNorman”) as a gregarious make-up artist, Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as a crass, washed-up director and Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad”), with a full head of hair, as Mendez’s domestic go-to-man. And, though there’s no surprise ending to this biopic, the suspense is fiercely palpable, as the important question isn’t, “Will they make it?” but, “How the hell … ?”
Sure, “Argo” hits the cinematic bull’s eye, but it’s the subject matter that packs the strongest punch, as the fortuitous modern-day relevance fosters a deeper emotional and intellectual impact than the average poignant historical recollection. The film entertains and educates, illuminating how history can, and often does, repeat itself. And in this case, that’s not such a good thing.
With a storyline hawking currently controversial subject matter and a star-studded cast, artfully directed and fed clever dialogue, “Argo” yields the power to wobble a malleable voter mind; and, as the “Oscar buzz” continues to grow, it might prove as influential as the final debate — or, based on that track record, perhaps even more so.