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Argo: A Thriller Par Excellence

Thrillers are the perfect films for a mid-December movie night when the built up pressure of the final weeks of the semester needs a release. And if it’s a thriller that you’re in the mood for, Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, is the perfect choice.

The nerve-rackingly paced, real-life film is set within one of the tensest moments in the history of U.S. foreign policy. In 1979, a revolution swept Iran, toppling the pro-Western Shah and placing the theocratic Ayatollahs at the helm of the powerful Persian state. The unremitting leaders vehemently opposed to the United States condoned and then supported popular demonstrations against U.S. installations in Iran, the most notable of which was the U.S. embassy in Tehran. On November 4, 1979, Islamist students and militants formed a mob outside the embassy. Inside, the American diplomats frantically shredded classified documents and debated exit strategies. The crowd, now worked up into a frantic frenzy, stormed the gates of the embassy, and took 52 Americans hostage. Argo tells the lesser-known account of six Americans who escaped out of the back door of the embassy without detection and found safety in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s (Victor Garber) home as the hostage crises unfolded.

After exhausting a number of terrible plans to extract the six hostages, the CIA adopts a patently absurd scheme. CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) plans to infiltrate Iran, have the six trapped Americans pose as a Canadian film crew scouting possible shooting locations for a phony movie, and fly them out of the country before the Revolutionary Guard finds them in the Canadian ambassador’s house and hangs them off cranes in the city’s crowded streets. It is, in the name of CIA assistant deputy director Jack O’Donnell, “The best bad idea we have.”

Flying to Hollywood, then badly in disrepair, Mendez elicits the support of old-time producer Lester Chambers and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman and Alan Arkin). They choose a cheesy sci-fi flick, Argo, set in the Middle East, draw up sketches, posters and diagrams and even convene a press event to fool the Iranians into thinking that the film is legitimate. After receiving a reluctant go-ahead from his superiors at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Mendez flies to Iran to begin the “exfil.” The film follows Mendez as he attempts to win the trust of the fearful half-dozen Americans, dupe the Iranians and fly them back to safety.

Affleck’s directing is nail-bitingly suspenseful. The terrifying takedown of the embassy, shot in grainy film stock, escalates the panic. The oscillation between shots of the shouting mob and the petrified American diplomats heightens the tension. Other humorless scenes in Iran, a depiction of Ambassador Taylor’s claustrophobic home, and views of the Bazaar and the airport, keep tightening the screws of suspense.

The sharp retorts inside the windowless conference rooms of CIA headquarters provide the film’s second location. The dry humor and sobering dialogue of the experts complements the fast-paced, heart-pounding mood. Thankfully, the film’s third location, Hollywood, provides (dark) comedic relief. The planning of the intricate scam is witty and wonderful. The pair’s zingers, “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” and “So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot and do nothing? You'll fit right in” come at just the right moments. The production of this trashy Star Wars rip off cools the pressure that often seems to reach boiling point.

Affleck’s directing does seem to borrow every thrill trick in the book, from suspenseful music and camera crosscuts, to grainy handheld shots. However, Affleck does carefully prime the suspense with a myriad of recurring details. Will the president authorize the purchase of plane tickets even after Mendez disobeys orders? Will Sahar the housekeeper reveal the location of the six Americans? Will the group be able to convince the Revolutionary Guard that they are screenwriters, directors and cameramen? The unknowns pile up, as does the apprehension.

Affleck’s attention to historical detail is expertly executed. He carefully crafts scenes as they appear in archival footage. In fact, the film’s credits show side-by-side pictures of the actual flag burning, public hangings and fence climbing of the era and Affleck’s adept recreation (which might strike some as self-congratulatory). While there are minor historical inaccuracies, from the film’s initial and very much necessary historical contextualizing to the film’s final thrilling conclusion, the overall chaos of the time—and of the operation—is accurately captured.

Affleck’s portrayal of the Iranian people is also even handed. While the Ayatollah and his Revolutionary Guard are (rightly) demonized, Affleck reminds the audience that the U.S.’s continuous entanglement in Iranian affairs, especially in offering the hated Shah asylum in the U.S., was problematic at best, reckless, irresponsible and unforgivable at worse. Not every Iranian in Argo is blinded by hate. But those that were violently opposed to America, Affleck seems to indicate, at least had an “excuse” for their hatred.  Argo might also serve as a topical reminder of the danger diplomats face in hostile countries, in Africa, the Middle East, and, most recently, in Libya.

The powerful nature of an unlikely alliance of the machismo CIA bureaucrats and big-headed Hollywood big-shots, of ever polite Canadian diplomats and strained American refugees working for a greater good is perhaps the most profound take-away from this film. The alliance was indeed an “enduring model of international co-operation between governments,” as the postscript of the film reads. And this film is perhaps an enduring model of Affleck’s expert directing and of his power to keep the audience at the edge of their seats.