Cast: Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), John Chambers (John Goodman), Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe), Hamilton Jordan (Kyle Chandler), Malinov (Chris Messina)
Director: Ben Affleck
Theatrical release: 10/12/2012 DVD Date: 02/19/2013
Rating: R Running Time: 120 minutes
Note(s): Based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez and the Wired Magazine article "The Great Escape" by Joshuah Bearman.
— ♦ —
Review: The trick with films based on actual events, events for which the outcome is known to all, is to create an element of the unknown and to maintain a level of suspense or tension throughout. In this respect, Argo achieves this admirably. This is a tense, suspenseful thriller, no question about it. But it does have a significant flaw that could have — and should have — been avoided. But first a quick recap of the storyline.
In late 1979 Iranian students broke into and took over the US Embassy in Tehran. In the chaos, six American diplomats managed to escape, taking refuge in the Canadian Embassy. It was clear to both the US and Canadian governments that if the Iranians discovered the missing diplomats, that the lives of all involved would be in jeopardy. So a plan was devised to smuggle the Americans out of the country. The CIA turned to Tony Mendez, who had experience in this area, and he came up with plan to send a film crew to Iran under the guise of location scouting for a science fiction movie. He would go in alone, arrange to have the Iranian government see seven people on site, and then simply leave after two days. The risks were high, but in Mendez's opinion, manageable.
Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez. On his best day, Affleck isn't a very good actor and while he portrays the character competently enough, his performance here is sullen, stiff and flat, and largely forgettable. But Affleck as an actor isn't the real problem here; it is Affleck as the director. Rather than make a movie about what is really an incredible rescue operation, Affleck has made a movie about himself … or rather, the character he plays. Affleck allows the camera to linger far too long on himself, and focuses far too much screentime on the mundane aspects of Mendez's personal life, scenes that are irrelevant to the story. My guess is had another actor played the part of Mendez, Affleck (as director) would have wisely stuck more to the story being told and not spent so much time filming the character. (Memo to Ben: The movie is titled Argo, not Tony Mendez and the Canadian Caper.)
Everything else about the film is spot-on. The supporting cast is largely first-rate, and the film does a terrific job of capturing the atmosphere of Iran — and to a lesser extent the US — of early 1980. Footage of the event, as well as clips from television shows, are seamlessly integrated into the action. All very well done.
So while Argo is an exciting thriller, one definitely worth seeing, the two biggest drawbacks are Ben Affleck the actor and Ben Affleck the director. It's possible that he was simply stretched too thin here, that he should have done one or the other, but by being both in front of and behind the camera he single-handedly turned what could have been, should have been, an outstanding 4-star film into just a very good 3-star film.