Towards the beginning of Ben Affleck’s latest film, Argo, make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, says to CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck), “Even a Rhesus Monkey can direct a movie.” This type of tongue-in-cheek word play signifies a new, and deserved, confidence from the actor turned auteur. Argo is formulaic at best in terms of Chris Terrio’s screenplay, but its Affleck’s direction and the performances from his cast that raise Argo above the bar he set with his previous film, The Town.
Argo is set during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when a group of Iranian militant revolutionaries storm the US embassy in 1979. However, this film actually recounts a previously unknown and confidential story of six Americans who escaped the embassy and were given sanctuary by the Canadian ambassador. These six are in a unique and treacherous situation of being unknown escapees who, if caught, could be made examples of by irate militants without complicating the heavily observed hostage crisis at the US embassy. Their story becomes the focal point of Argo as the White House, State Department, and CIA all spitball ideas on how to rescue these six trapped Americans before they are discovered by the Iranians. Eventually they settle on a long-shot idea from Mendez, which involves posing the escapees as a film crew scouting locations in Iran for a fake movie by the name of Argo. Terrio’s screenplay does a great job of building tension in all the right places, but it does so in a sort of Screenwriting-101 kind of way. In other words, it’s predictable.
Regardless of predictability, Argo is a deeply involving film. Just because we laugh when we’re supposed to laugh, and we cry when we’re supposed to cry, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Instead, Argo is a perfect team effort. At its heart, there is a tremendously powerful and amazing story told in an uncomplicated way, which is just what every good movie needs at its core. Additionally, it is expertly cast with terrific performances from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Alan Arkin who steals scenes as the cantankerous Lester Siegel. Arkin and Goodman head up the fake film studio needed to validate Mendez’s plan to disguise the escaped hostages as a film crew. Here, the film adds an enjoyable layer of film-geek enthusiasm. Finally, Affleck outdoes himself as director. Argo has a deliberate and even pace, some historically iconic staging, and camera work that enhances the tone of the film. In fact, Affleck even shows some side-by-side comparisons between historical photos and some shots from his film in the closing credits. His attention to detail brings dimension and realism to the film in a time where real decisions had to be made without the luxury of our modern digital age.
Argo is the first great movie of the fall season and delivers as both a historical snapshot and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. This is a very strong effort that succeeds beyond any Rhesus Monkey’s wildest expectations. A-