Review: Argo

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Ben Affleck, Victor Garber, Page Leong, Tate Donovan and others in ARGO

Ben Affleck's latest drama, Argo, is set in 1979-80 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The first moments of the film establish the setting for us with a quick look at the country's recent history (and the U.S. involvement in it) preceding the attack, and then we are thrown into the protests leading to the attack on the American embassy in Tehran. Argo is practically tension-filled from these first glimpses of protest until the last few minutes of the movie.

As the embassy is overtaken, six American employees escape and are taken in by a Canadian diplomat (Victor Garber). While the rest of the embassy employees are front-page news as hostages, the CIA and State Department quietly work on ways to get the six out of Iran. Exfiltration ("exfil") expert Tony Mendez (played by director Affleck) comes up with the idea of claiming these Americans as Canadian filmmakers checking out Iran as a possible setting for a sci-fi pic named "Argo." A bizarre notion to be sure, but it's "the best bad idea" of the bunch the government was considering.

With the approval of his boss Jack O'Donnell (a craggy-faced Bryan Cranston), Mendez meets up with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in LA and they start a plan in motion. Goodman and Arkin's scenes add just the right amount of levity to the otherwise taut Argo.

The manner in which Argo keeps the viewer on edge is unlike any other film I've seen on the big screen in a while. Even though I knew how things were going to come out (it is based on a true story, after all), I was still biting my knuckles through a large part of the film. The attention to historical detail, Alexandre Desplat's Middle-Eastern tinged score, and the fluid motion of the story set the scene and make you feel a part of it.

It's wonderful to see a film filled with a hey-who's-that-guy-he's-in-everything type cast, but the large number of actors involved means the only character we really get to learn anything about is Mendez. Multiple women are in the film, but they all sit on the sidelines while the men figure everything out and care for them. Affleck chose to portray Mendez, who is Latino, most likely because he's the hero of the piece. Not that he's bad in the part, but there are so few non-stereotypical roles for Latinos in Hollywood! It seems a missed opportunity. Especially notable after seeing the irksome yellowface in the Cloud Atlas trailer before the film started.

Gender roles and ethnicity issues aside, much of my viewing experience of Argo was spent completely engrossed in the action. If you see it, stay through the credits to see photos of the real people involved paired with the actors who played them, while a short commentary from former President Jimmy Carter plays. For the record, Tate Donovan looks more like Tate Donovan than anyone else.