CIA spies are the good guys for a change in Argo, director Ben Affleck’s shrewd reconstruction of a bizarre mission aimed at retrieving six Americans from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iran hostage crisis.
Smart, funny and suspenseful, the R-rated Argo is the first CIA-themed movie in a long time that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists over the Agency’s acts of incompetence or nastiness. Affleck stars as ballsy “exfiltration” operative Tony Mendez, but his most astonishing accomplishment comes in directing an uplifting spy story that actually seems credible despite decades of depressing films that make the nation’s top intelligence agency look like an amoral bully.
Moviegoers looking for a reason to hate America need look no further than Argo predecessors like the Jason Bourne trilogy, which painted the CIA in 50 shades of black for its eagerness to experiment on humans to destroy inconvenient truths, or 1975′s stellar Three Days of the Condor, which fed on the public’s Watergate-era disgust with all things governmental and depicted Agency operatives as homicidal butchers obsessed with Middle East oil.
Argo differs from its forebears by neither demonizing or deifying the CIA. Downplaying standard genre fixtures including conspiracies, muddled moral quandaries and wham-bam action theatrics — there’s not a single gunshot fired over the course of the film — Affleck delivers a happy ending by narrowing the film’s focus to one mind-blowing chapter of Agency history.
(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)
Here’s the scheme, declassified in 1997 by the Clinton administration (and recounted a decade later in Wired’s feature story, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran“): Mendez recruits a Planet of the Apes prosthetics expert and an industry hack (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to create a fake production company that supposedly wants to film a sci-fi movie called Argo in Iran.
Posing as the film’s producer, Mendez arrives in Tehran and hands out fake identities to cabin-fever-wracked Americans who’ve been hiding out for weeks in the Canadian ambassador’s house. The nervous “film crew” drives through throngs of hostile crowds to the airport to get the hell out of town as enraged Revolutionary Guards give chase.
Argo’s blistering simulation of Mendez’s high-wire sting opens on crowd scenes, filmed in Istanbul on handheld cameras, of furious anti-American protestors swarming over the American embassy. Re-staged with strict allegiance to archival source material, these images pack a sickening punch as the movie hits theater just weeks after terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Libya.
So where’s the feel-good stuff? Affleck counters the stomach-churning footage with dry humor drawing on the sheer absurdity of Mendez’s enterprise. Goodman and Arkin lighten the tone like a couple of veteran vaudeville shtickmeisters during the sun-splashed second act set in Los Angeles. And back in Washington, D.C., Mendez listens to his Beltway superiors spitball a plan in which the stranded Americans would pedal smuggled bicycles 300 miles to the border in the dead of winter. Affleck/Mendez astutely describes his fake location-scouting plan: “This is the best bad idea we’ve got.”
Unlike most of its predecessors, Affleck’s CIA movie neither denies nor embraces the Agency’s considerable karmic baggage. Argo‘s preface points out that the CIA installed the corrupt Iranian Shah and propped up a regime that used torture and secret police, which clearly sucks.
Still, Affleck, scriptwriter Chris Terrio and a crackerjack production team including costume designer Jaqueline West, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) and production designer Sharon Seymour make the case for a heroic CIA in thrillingly straightforward fashion: Six civilians who did no harm might get killed or tortured unless they escape Iran. Tony Mendez saves their lives. Canada gets the credit, and everybody breathes a big sigh of relief.
As an actor, Affleck possesses no light touch, but he excels at brooding and he puts his tall, dark persona to good use in Argo. Moving through the action in beard and Beatle cut like a wary bear carrying the weight of the world — or at least six innocent humans — on his shoulders, Affleck smartly delegates the jokes to Goodman and Arkin. The six civilian characters convince as ordinary people who are understandably freaked out at the prospect of getting caught and strung up on a construction crane like the poor guy they see dangling down the street from their hideout. (That gruesome shot is modeled to near perfection on a famous photograph from the period.)
This kind of fanatically fact-checked realism oddly enough sells Argo as a feel-good thriller. Hollywood frequently reminds us how badly the CIA can screw things up, and no doubt Agency archives overflow with redacted records documenting morally bankrupt black ops. But here’s a memo to the CIA: If you’re sitting on more secret missions in the Argo vein, call Hollywood and get cracking. We’re a captive audience.
WIRED Ben Affleck’s taut performance as ballsy spy anchors an expertly reconstructed piece of history that casts the CIA in rare heroic light.
TIRED Besides the housemaid, was every Iranian really that pissed off?
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