Sunday, October 14, 2012

Movie Review: "Argo" directed by Ben Affleck


Directed by Ben Affleck
 Warner Brothers Pictures

     Argo is a remarkable true story about a dramatic rescue of six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980.  Ben Affleck directed this tight drama and also stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA specialist in "exfiltration" (removing people from hostile environments).

     The movie opens with a fairly brief summary of the political and historical background which precipitated the Iranian takeover of the U.S Embassy in Teheran. The Iranians, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeni, held fifty two Americans hostage.  They demanded the return of the deposed Shah of Iran who, suffering from lymphoma, had obtained political asylum in the United States.  Six Americans escaped the embassy during the takeover and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador.  

     Multiple plans to remove the six isolated hostages were constructed and discarded and finally, in desperation, the CIA turns to Mendez.  He devises an outlandish plot to enter Iran and leave with the six hostages, all posing as a group of Canadians planning to film a "Star Wars" knock-off movie in Iran.  The story moves to Hollywood where Mendez (Affleck) enlists the aid of renowned make-up artist John Chambers (played by John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to aid in the ruse.  The audacious plan goes through multiple levels of review, including President Carter and his chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler).  The political implications of success vs. failure play heavily in the discussions.

    The movie balances the absolute terror of the hostage situation with humor and the total absurdity of the plan to rescue them.  Alan Arkin is terrific, injecting levity and irony into the nearly impossible situation.  There is also a cinematic balance between the beauty of the city of Teheran and the surrounding Iranian mountains and the horror of the terrorist acts of the Revolutionary Guard. The movie makers have also re-created the look of the late seventies complete with the large eye glasses, the wide lapels and tight jeans.  The soundtrack also lends authenticity to the setting of the era. 

     "Argo", though, is really the story of Tony Mendez and his tremendous heroism  and bravery.  This is a story about prioritizing the safety of others above your own and doing the right thing.  It is a story of a brave and principled man who completes his mission against enormous odds and at great risk to his own safety and well-being.  The courage this man displays is unbelievable.  The skill with which Ben Affleck brings this character to the screen is equally incredible.  Affleck's performances (both as actor and director) are Oscar-worthy.

      I was a young adult during this time period, trying to survive the first years of my surgical residency.  I remember the Iran Hostage Crisis and the impotence that America felt as the situation dragged on for 444 days.  I remember the harsh criticisms of Jimmy Carter and his seeming reluctance to do anything to resolve the crisis, even as this clandestine operation was in place.  The criticism of Carter reached new heights when an attempted military hostage rescue resulted in the loss of eight American servicemen and two aircraft in the Iranian dessert.  Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election was largely blamed on his perceived lack of leadership during this time.  The hostages were released one hour after Reagan's inauguration.  The film casts new light on the political decision making and behind the scenes actions that were, in fact, taking place.

    "Argo" is a fantastic film, a fascinating recreation of the time period and is also a critically important history lesson.  I recommend it highly.


  1. It was good, that’s for damn sure, but there also felt like something was missing from the final-product to really take us by storm. Everybody’s fun to watch and the movie has it’s tense moments, but overall, it’s not as exciting when you know the out-come beforehand. Nice review Tom.

    1. Thanks for reading the review and your comments. It is difficult to build a lot of suspense when the ending is known, but I still thought this film was very effective. I thought it brought the time period to life although the political implications (especially for Jimmy Carter) were somewhat underplayed. I like your blog, by the way. Keep up the good work!