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'Argo': Too Good To Be True, Because It Isn't

Oct 12, 2012
Originally published on October 12, 2012 1:01 pm

Ben Affleck's Argo is two-two-TWO movies in one, and while neither is especially original, by merging them Affleck pulls off a coup. First, he gives you espionage with the You Are There zing of a documentary. Then he serves up broad showbiz satire. For his final feat, he blends the two into a pulse-pounding nail-biter of a climax. And this all really happened. Most of it. Except for that climax.

The prologue is newsreel-style. A female narrator recounts the U.S. role in the 1953 Iranian coup that installed our ally, the Shah, the 26 years of human-rights abuses that followed, and the Shiite revolution that sent the despot fleeing to the U.S. and the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Then it's 1979 and a mob is converging on the American Embassy in Tehran. Affleck deftly cuts between news footage and re-enactments, along with scenes of personnel inside the building shredding and burning classified documents. Six people — four men, two women — slip out a side door before they can be taken hostage along with their colleagues.

In the U.S., CIA agents, among them Bryan Cranston with '70s hair, express the fear that if the six — now hiding in the Canadian ambassador's basement — were discovered, they wouldn't be tossed in with the other hostages but publicly executed. How do you get them out?

Chris Terrio's script makes much of the CIA's blunders, from its prediction that the revolution wouldn't happen to proposed scenarios for the sextet's escape — among them a 300-mile bicycle trip to Turkey. Then unstable, maverick agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, hatches a scheme by which the six would leave Iran posing as a film crew on a location scout. It's a preposterous idea. But as Cranston explains to a higher-up, it's the best bad idea they have.

Argo is the name of a script Mendez finds in the mansion of has-been producer Lester Siegel, a fictional composite played by Alan Arkin. The scene's other character isn't fictional. Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers, played by John Goodman, was central to this operation.

Arkin and Goodman have the only colorful parts in Argo — the six fugitive Americans are like glorified extras, though Clea DuVall is always good to see, and Scoot McNairy has moments as the skeptic with the awful '70s mustache.

The film's climax, a series of movie-ish narrow escapes, had me leaning forward saying, "Go. Go. Go. Go. Go-go-go-go." I was annoyed, though, to learn that after all the movie's assurances of realism, from the prologue to photos over the credits showing the actors side by side with photos of their real-life counterparts, those terrifying close calls are all invented. If it seems too Hollywood to be true, that's because it is.

And then I thought, if they were going to invent, why not make the fugitives more interesting or Affleck's Mendez less of a lump? But my guess is the movie will be nominated for all kinds of awards and make Affleck an A-list director. Studios can do business with a filmmaker who comes on so serious but has a core of Hollywood shamelessness.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The story of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 is well known. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year after militants stormed the U.S. embassy. What's less known is the story of the six Americans who slipped out of the embassy and hid at the residence of the Canadian ambassador.

The new film "Argo" is based on their story and on the CIA's operation to get them out of Iran. Ben Affleck is the film's director and one of its stars. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Ben Affleck's "Argo" is two, two, two movies in one, and while neither is especially original, by merging them Affleck pulls off a coup. First, he gives you espionage with the "you are there" zing of a documentary. Then he serves up broad showbiz satire. For his final feat, he blends the two into a pulse-pounding nail-biter of a climax. And this all really happened. Most of it. Except for that climax.

The prologue is newsreel-style. A female narrator recounts the U.S. role in the 1953 Iranian coup that installed our ally, the Shah, the 26 years of human-rights abuses that followed, and the Shiite revolution that sent the despot fleeing to the U.S. and the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Then it's 1979 and a mob is converging on the American Embassy in Tehran.

Affleck deftly cuts between news footage and reenactments, along with scenes of personnel inside the building shredding and burning classified documents. Six people - four men, two women - slip out a side door before they can be taken hostage along with their colleagues.

In the U.S., CIA agents, among them Bryan Cranston with '70s hair, express the fear that if the six - now hiding in the Canadian ambassador's basement - were discovered, they wouldn't be tossed in with the other hostages but publicly executed. How do you get them out?

Chris Terrio's script makes much of the CIA's blunders, from its prediction that the revolution wouldn't happen to proposed scenarios for the sextet's escape, among them a 300-mile bicycle trip to Turkey. Then unstable, maverick agent Tony Mendez, played by Affleck, hatches a scheme by which the six would leave Iran posing as a film crew on a location scout. It's a preposterous idea. But as Cranston explains to a higher-up, it's the best bad idea they have.

"Argo" is the name of a script Mendez finds in the mansion of has-been producer Lester Siegel, a fictional composite played by Alan Arkin. The scene's other character isn't fictional. "Planet of the Apes" makeup man John Chambers, played by John Goodman, was in life central to this operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGO")

JOHN GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) How about "The Horses of Achilles"?

ALAN ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) No good. Nobody does Westerns anymore.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) It's ancient Troy.

ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) If it's got horses in it, it's a Western.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Yeah, Kenny, please. Yeah. It's John Chambers about the office space. It doesn't matter. It's a fake movie.

ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Hey, is A006 still on the open list? Yeah, I'll hold.

BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Fade in on a starship landing. An exotic, Middle Eastern vibe. Women gather offering ecstatic libations to the sky gods. "Argo: A Science-Fantasy Adventure."

ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) It's in turnaround.

GOODMAN: (as John Chambers) Can we get the option?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Why do we need the options?

ARKIN: (as Lester Siegel) You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA.

EDELSTEIN: Arkin and Goodman have the only colorful parts in Argo. The six fugitive Americans are like glorified extras, though Clea DuVall is always good to see, and Scoot McNairy has moments as the skeptic with the awful '70s mustache. Scenes like the ones in which Affleck's Mendez meets with the group in the ambassador's basement and grills them on their cover story are hard to resist.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGO")

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where was your passport issued?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Vancouver.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Toronto.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Torono. Canadians don't pronounce the T.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Some Komiteh guard is actually going to know that?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) If you're detained for questioning, they will bring in someone who knows that. Yes. Mary, who were the last three prime ministers of Canada?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Mary) Uh, Trudeau, Pearson, and Diefenbaker.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your father's name?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Mary) Howard.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's his occupation?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Mary) Fisherman.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Where were you born?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Mary) Halifax, Nova Scotia.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your date of birth?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Mary) February 21st, 1952.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Good. What's your job on the movie?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Producer.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Associate producer. What was the last movie you produced?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) "High and Dry."

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Who paid for that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) CFDC.

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name? What's your middle name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Le...

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) What's your middle name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) Leon?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) Shoot him. He's an American spy. Look, they're going to try to break you. OK? By trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as fugitive) You really believe your little story is going to make a difference when there's a gun to our heads?

AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) I think my story is the only thing between you and a gun to your head.

EDELSTEIN: That scene is a slam-dunk and the film's climax, a series of movie-ish narrow escapes, had me leaning forward saying, go. Go. Go. Go. Go-go-go-go. I was annoyed, though, to learn that after all the movie's assurances of realism - from the prologue to photos over the credits showing the actors side by side with photos of their real-life counterparts - those terrifying close calls are all invented.

If it seems too Hollywood to be true, that's because it is. And then I thought, if they were going to invent, why not make the fugitives more interesting or Affleck's Mendez less of a lump? But my guess is the movie will be nominated for all kinds of awards and make Affleck an A-list director. Studios can do business with a filmmaker who comes on so serious, but has a core of Hollywood shamelessness.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.