Thrilling Oscar prospect
BLUE-CHIP Oscar contender that’s also a rousing popcorn movie, Ben Affleck’s Argo offers plenty of nail-biting thrills as well as funnier scenes than you’d ever imagine possible in the grim context of the Iran hostage crisis, which began in 1979.
Quick history lesson: That’s when 52 employees of the American Embassy in Tehran were held captive for 444 days by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini after the country’s ailing longtime ruler, the shah, fled Iran for asylum in the US.
The film focuses on half a dozen employees who escaped into the streets when the embassy was overrun by an angry mob of students. The escapees were hidden for three months by brave Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
The long-classified true story of how they finally fled Iran – by posing as the crew of a phony sciencefiction film, led by a steel-nerved CIA agent – is stranger than any fiction Hollywood could invent.
This preposterous and dangerous-sounding scheme is the brainchild of a CIA extraction expert named Tony Mendez (Affleck in his finest work yet).
With the Canadians preparing to abandon Iran, Mendez presents it as the ‘‘best bad idea’’ to safely fly the Americans out of the country on a commercial aircraft. To concoct a convincing cover story to fool Iranians searching for the Americans, Mendez turns to his pal John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist, who recruits a cynical movie producer (Alan Arkin). They quickly option a script for a ‘‘$20 million Star Wars ripoff’’ called Argo and plant a story in Variety about the project’s imminent production plans.
Affleck aces the film’s tonal shifts so flawlessly that it’s surprising this is only his third movie as a director. You’d think it was the work of a veteran.
Most daringly, Affleck cross-cuts a photo-op readthrough of the cheesy Argo script by costumed actors with terrifying scenes of the embassy hostages (the ones not being hidden by the Canadians) being subjected to mock executions. Purely for lack of options, the White House reluctantly agrees to send Mendez off to Tehran on this mad mission.
The Canadians have agreed to provide phony passports for their ‘‘guests’’ but it’s up to Mendez to teach the six how to pose as a film crew – and lie their way past suspicious armed guards at the airport.
Even with co-operation secured, Mendez and his boss (Bryan Cranston) back in Washington have to think fast when the Carter administration gets cold feet because of the potential embarrassment should Mendez fail.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio’s superb script avoids caricaturing the Iranian extremists or their beliefs and allows Affleck to offer some white-knuckle suspense for a grand show – and a slam-bang ending to Argo that’s guaranteed to have audiences cheering.
Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston star in