The CIA is a mystery to me.* Is it really like it’s portrayed in the movies? Do they really have assassins and science programs like Treadstone? Do they really know more than everyone else and keep secrets hidden from the president? Do they really undermine foreign regimes and plan coups? Can Matt Damon really kill someone with a rolled-up newspaper?
Argo seems to tell the CIA like it is, which is good, since it’s billed as a true story. Sure, some suspension of disbelief is necessary, but I think disbelief is the point. In fact, I was surprised by how many facts and events contained in this movie that I didn’t believe at first turned out to be true. This story actually happened, and director Ben Affleck sells us on how it happened by framing it in a thrilling, fascinating movie.
Tony Mendez (Affleck) is called in to a CIA bigwig meeting to advise on the Iranian hostage crisis (which was in 1979- don’t worry, I didn’t know either). Six Americans are hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran, and the CIA wants them out. Mendez comes up with a plan to retrieve them, and it’s a doozy: come up with a fake movie and pretend the 6 Americans are part of a Canadian film crew shooting the film (called Argo) in Iran. They have to have real producers, both as consultants to make the movie seem real and so that there’s a real office, just in case there’s need for an emergency phone call (and you know there will be…). Affleck cast two comic gems in the Hollywood producer roles- Alan Arkin and John Goodman. Mendez himself has to go to Iran to make the plan happen, and he only has a few days to prepare the hostages to fulfill their roles.
It all makes for a fascinating movie, as well as thrilling, which is uncanny, since we know how it all ends. Part of the fascinations the movie inspires is how true Affleck is to the reality of the hostage situation- the insane fervor of the Iranian crowd, the desperation of the Americans in their embassy trying to shred papers before the crowd enters the building. We knew Affleck was good with the whole chase scene thing as well as nail-biting, plot-driven action (see: his first two movies, the great Gone Baby Gone and The Town). But here, Affleck directs an almost quiet action movie, sticking to the facts, letting the images drive the story rather than the dialogue. He’s growing as a director.
That’s not to say nothing else contributes; Affleck has a stellar cast supporting his mature directing. Bryan Cranston adds his form of brilliant desperation to the mix, anchoring the climax of the movie in the surprisingly thrilling minutiae that make the ending possible. Scoot McNairy is the standout among the hostages as their Farsi-speaking leader, Joe. He mistrusts Mendez, but we watch him grow from suspicious panic to calm under pressure. Affleck throws himself an alley oop as the star of the movie, but he actually doesn’t have to do much; his Mendez is a quiet man who gets his job done, but Affleck is effective.
The best performances in the movie, though, belong to Arkin and Goodman. They’re hilarious and a joy to watch. In a way, they best embody one of the themes of Affleck’s movie. We live in a world of cynicism, the defining characteristic of the post-JFK, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-9/11, post-post-post era. The movie is full of cynics (pretty much every character is skeptical throughout the movie), but these cynics find something real to believe in with the CIA’s plan. Pay attention to the scene where Arkin agrees to help. You can tell his time is occupied by the empty life of a Hollywood bigshot; now he’s confronted by the chance to do something real. When he looks at a television showing footage of the hostages, the change on his face is so subtle, it’s masterful. It’s the change of a cynic rising above his doubts to put his faith in something. Affleck is quietly calling for the same thing today.
The final scene is beautiful. Affleck, playing another cynic in Mendez, puts aside his jadedness and allows himself to be blessed. The real Affleck is obviously a romantic, but it’s hard to do romanticism without being corny. The fact that he avoided corniness here is a testament to what a great movie Argo is and to what a great director Affleck has become.
*Granted, it’s probably supposed to be.