I’m not a gambler because I have fairly lousy luck. I might as well flush a $50 bill down the toilet as feed that much money into a slot machine. If I been at the 1973 Belmont Stakes and placed a bet on Secretariat, he would have lost. If I had wagered on the Steelers in all their Super Bowl appearances, there would be no Lombardi trophies in Pittsburgh. And if I had put money on the Detroit Tigers to win the American League Championship, the Yankees would be playing in the upcoming World Series. Get the picture?
However if someone wanted to bet me that the film “Argo” and its director Ben Affleck will not be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director when the nominations are announced on Jan. 10, 2013, I’d say, “Name the stakes,” and I would walk away a wealthy man. Very few things are a certainty in these days, but this is one of them, and you can carve it in stone because movies just don’t get any better than this one.
“Argo” tells the remarkable true story about one of the most amazing rescue operations in history. Back in 1979 a revolution was under way in Iran, and things turned really ugly on Nov. 4, when militants invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans as hostages, who ultimately spent 444 days in captivity. But six Americans managed to escape and ended up being taken in at the home of Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the ambassador of Canada.
Fully realizing that the six “houseguests” would probably be killed if they were discovered, U.S. officials began examining ways to extricate them safely, and to this end they called in CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) as a consultant. During the ensuing brainstorming session, a number of possible plans are discussed, including providing the six people with bicycles and having them attempt to ride 300 miles to the Turkish border in the dead of winter.
Mendez points out the absurdity of this plan by saying, “It’s winter. You can’t afford to wait around till spring so it’s nice enough to take a bike ride. The only way out of that city is the airport. You build new cover identities for them, you send in a Moses, he takes them out on a commercial flight.”
Of the course the main problem with this idea is what kind of “new cover identities” to devise for the “houseguests.” Mendez is racking his brain to figure something out until he suddenly gets an idea as he’s watching “Battle for Planet of the Apes” on TV. If Mendez and the “houseguests” can successfully pose as a Canadian film team visiting Iran on a scouting mission to find a location for a new film, they can all simply board a plane and fly home.
Now it just so happens that Mendez is friends with a guy named John Chambers (John Goodman), famous Hollywood makeup man, and when Mendez contacts him, Chambers suggests they also bring in film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to help with the plan. When the three of them meet, Siegel, who is a master of sarcasm, listens to what Mendez has in mind and then offers the following cynical commentary.
“Okay, you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million, all of whom chant ‘death to America’ all the live long day. You want to set up a movie in a week. You want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living. Then you get to sneak Double 07 over here into a country that wants CIA blood in their breakfast cereal. Then you’re going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most-watched city in the world?”
Mendez responds, “Plus about 100 militia at the airport, that’s right.”
And Siegel fires back, “Right. Look, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the Army that had better odds than this.”
As you watch Mendez put his outrageously improbable plan into action, it’s difficult to believe that he actually pulled it off, but he did, and “Argo” is a dramatic, suspenseful, and riveting motion picture depicting a truly amazing bit of history. When Mendez and his charges finally begin going through the various checkpoints en route to boarding the plane that will bring them back to the United, the tension becomes absolutely unbearable. In fact, when the closing credits started to roll, I was so emotionally drained I couldn’t move for a few moments.
Affleck, Goodman, and Arkin all are superb in their respective roles, and even though the film is incredibly tense most of the time, Arking and Goodman occasionally provide some very welcome comic relief by uttering several wonderful lines like Siegel’s comment about the Brady Bunch. In the film’s production notes, Affleck explained handling the humor from his viewpoint as a director.
“The humor was an important part of the script, but it was the hardest line to walk. My main concern was making sure the laughs did not jeopardize the sense of urgency or realism. Luckily, we had Alan Arkin and John Goodman handling most of the comedy. They played every line with such integrity that the humor feels innate and never strains belief.”
It’s a testament to Affleck as a director that despite being based upon a true story, “Argo” never seems like a documentary. Instead it unfolds like a dramatic cliffhanger. And significant verbiage does not exist to describe Mendez’s courage in the whole matter. In the production notes, Affleck spoke about the film’s format and about portraying Mendez.
“It is not intended to be a documentary. As is always the case with a movie like this, elements had to be compressed and some dramatic license was taken because it is, after all, a drama. But we were very fortunate in that we could stay faithful to the spirit of what happened, because the truth of what happened was incredibly compelling.
“Tony steps up and does what he’s asked to do, completely in secret. No fanfare, no high-fives…just do the job and, if you succeed, go home and keep your mouth shut. He puts his life on the line to try and save these people and that’s heroic stuff. It’s impressive and also quite humbling.”
In real life after the operation was over, Mendez received the highest award handed out by the CIA, but he wasn’t permitted to keep it until 1997, when President Clinton declassified the entire event. Subsequently Mendez recounted the story in his 2000 book titled “Master of Disguise.”
“Argo” (It gets a resounding 10+.) may be based upon a true story, but it plays out like one of the best fiction thrillers you’ve ever seen. It abounds with tense moments that will have you gripping your seat hard enough to produce a serious case of white knuckles, and your heart will be in your throat during the scenes in the airport near the end.
This is unquestionably the best film I’ve seen all year, and it’s a lock for a best picture nomination. I’m betting on it, and I don’t bet.