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TIFF Review: Argo

'A highly entertaining thriller… [but] this movie, these filmmakers and this story itself are too clever to pull some of the easy tricks they do.'

Argo is a solid prestige picture and a highly entertaining thriller. I’ve also got to give a lot of caveats to that, since the film is already positioned as an Oscar contender and it’s getting the buzz. I really did like it. I just have to call out some things that will likely get a pass in the ensuing months.

Argo was a CIA mission declassified in the ‘90s. When hostages were taken at the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, six agents got out. However they were stuck in the country and the CIA had to find a way to extract them. After ruling out all standard covers, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) came up with the plan: Set up a fake movie production, go in as a location scout, give the six agents cover stories as the film crew, and bring them home. The bogus movie was a sci-fi schlocker called “Argo.”

The sequence of the storming of the US embassy is stunning. Affleck as director brilliantly balances the Iranian protest, the embassy’s military security efforts, the destruction of important government assets and the safety of the embassy staff and visitors. The difficulty of the rescue mission, and the absurdity of plans like sending in bicycles, are sharply explained.

Then the Hollywood section, as Mendez mounts up a cover production, is very entertaining and full of comic relief. To make the cover story believable, they have to set up an actual production the Iranian government could verify. Makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) get all the good lines.

The thing is, all their lines are jokes about how Hollywood is worse than Iran. We like Arkin and Goodman so much that we laugh, but they make at least three different versions of that joke. We get it. Hollywood sucks. Better to be a political prisoner, but not really, because this is still a movie.

When Mendez goes to Iran, Argo is back in serious mode. Serious doesn’t have to mean somber and heavy, because it’s exciting and deadly. These six refugees have been hiding in a Canadian ambassador’s house for months with an entire country looking for them, and under that pressure they’re supposed to memorize cover stories and perform them at armed checkpoints. Their gallows humor humanizes them, in another traditional way movies elicit sympathy. But hey, if the real Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham) made marriage jokes then please correct me.

I’ll try not to spoil the specifics, but there is a point where Mendez has to defy orders. There’s no mystery about whether or not he’ll obey the corrupt orders. Even if it really went down that way, this is a movie and they don’t make movies about people who follow orders and don’t succeed in their mission. It does benefit the tension of the movie, so little harm done. The circumstances surrounding this defiance create more difficulties for the mission, more thrilling close calls that stand between Mendez's group and the airplane to freedom. It just feels really contrived that at the exact same moment when most movies pull the rug out from under the hero, it happens in this story too.

Somehow none of these oversights ruin the movie’s impact, they just take you out of the movie for brief spurts. A lot of these groaners could have been fixed at the script stage. We first meet Mendez waking up surrounded by empty Chinese takeout boxes, the universal cinematic language of a loner. Watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV gives Mendez the idea for this mission. If that, or any of the POTA movies, were really on TV the night before Mendez proposed this mission, I’ll concede that was good storytelling.

In the CIA headquarters scenes, we see a lot of suits walking down the hall clacking their shoes. Now it reflects the polish of other CIA movies very well, but it only serves to remind you we’re watching a CIA movie. It’s hard to help this next point, but we see the same character actors who always play unsympathetic suits or hardasses like Titus Welliver and Zeljko Ivanek. They’re great, but it reminds you that this is a movie because that’s who’s in it.

The movie is really good though. Affleck directs the script sure-footedly and creates suspense everywhere. It really feels like Iran, creating the danger and volatility in the street exteriors. Other tense steps in the mission are as suspenseful as the opening embassy scene. The claustrophobia of the Canadian ambassador’s house is palpable. I really liked all the actors as the American diplomats, their Canadian benefactors, and Affleck, Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s superior Jack O’Donnell.

It’s just this movie, these filmmakers and this story itself are too clever to pull some of the easy tricks they do. It’ll probably work for everyone. It’s a rousing story, a fascinating part of history that couldn’t be any stranger than fiction. It’s probably the movie I like the most with the most reservations this year.