Around this time last year, one of the best films of 2011, "The Ides of March," officially started the race for best pictures. This time a similarly sharp political thriller-actioner, "Argo," graces the screen.
On November 4, 1979, an angry crowd storms the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, demanding return of its deposed leader, Shah of Iran, who was granted asylum in the New York. With the rush of mobs breaking in amidst shattered glass and shots of tear gas, some of the remaining, foreign-service workers take great length to protect national security. Classified information are shredded, hammered or incinerated during those last frenzied minutes of freedom in revolutionary Iran.
What ensues is a national ordeal where 52 people taken as hostages for 444 days. Unbeknownst to the Iranians, six Americans (Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scott McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe) are able to escape through the back door and end up holing up in the abode of the Canadian's ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), as "houseguests."
Back in the U.S., government officials discuss extraction plans, all prove to be unworkable, such as the bike route that would require the six people cycle 300 miles to the Turkish border, or the English teachers when the English language school in Tehran has been closed months ago.
Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), known as an expert in "exfiltration" is brought in. The CIA operative comes up with "the best bad idea" to execute. Akin to a suicide mission, he leads the covert operation with an outlandish extrication plan. Inspired by "Planet of the Apes," pose the six Americans as Canadian film crew scouting an exotic location for a couple of days for a fake sci-fi movie and then depart from the airport.
If they couldn't withstand the scrutiny of tight airport security and their cover is blown, they would be caught as spies and face a firing squad. But this far-fetched mission is the only thing that stands between their lives and certain, eventual execution. The kind where their bodies might be dragged through the streets and hanged in broad daylight in public.
In order to credibly create a faux film, Mendez goes to Hollywood and lays the groundwork. He gets in touch with an Academy Award-winning makeup artist, John Chambers (John Goodman). They persuade a veteran filmmaker, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to form a phony production company, back it up with media promotion, and thus legitimizes the production in the eyes of the general public. After all, "If you want to sell a lie, you get the press sell it for you."
"Argo," a rip-off of "Star Wars," is born. With script, storyboards, poster, business cards, actors in costumes at table read, press event, it gains media recognition. The daringly outrageous operation is underway. Acting as producer, Agent Mendez flies out to Tehran and assigns new identities to the terrified six as director, associate producer, screenwriter, production designer, location manager and cameraman based on their appearance and background.
The walkthrough in a crowded Tehran marketplace during the location scouting, intercutting with Iranian children meticulously piecing together paper shreds of documents and pictures, is a nerve-wracking dry-run. Soon the Iranians would realize that six diplomats are missing.
When American officials pull the plug on the operation at the last minute for fear of utter failure and worldwide mockery, Mendez takes it upon himself to go through with the plan. It results in frantic attempts by his supervisor, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and colleagues at the CIA, along with the White House Chief of Staff (Kyle Chandler), to put things back together in the nick of time. The hairy drive through the streets filled with demonstrators, just-in-time airport reservation check-ins and passing through immigration, tense interrogation by armed guards, dramatic tarmac pursuit, and risky run to the skies are incredibly pulse-pounding.
Not only that "Argo" is both intelligent and entertaining, it's riveting from start to finish. Supremely-crafted script and storytelling. Brisk pace, witty dialogue and suspenseful actions, with tonal balance between lighter humor and dour reality. Authenticity with period costume and design, newsreels and footage from the era weaved into the story. Human approach provides connection to the characters and care about their fate. Solid, ensemble acting. Arkin, Goodman and Cranston have some of the most memorable one-liners. With critically praised "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," "Argo" places Affleck firmly in one of first-rate director's chairs.
Stay as the credits roll to see frames from the film juxtaposed with photos and news from the real event; they bear remarkable resemblance. Based on a true historical story, "Argo" is stranger than fiction. An absolute feat, it's an Oscar contender.
DVD (blu-ray): http://tinyurl.com/98g9euv