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Argo won a lot of recognition in Toronto. It’s getting good buzz and good reviews. It is perfectly positioned for a public and critical backlash. For me, Argo is probably a minor victim of its own success. The movie is not once-in-a-lifetime good, nor probably even once-in-a-decade good. But it is very good on many levels.

Leavin’ On a Jet Plane

The Argo
The Argo

The movie starts with a summary, for those born after 1970, of the Iranian hostage situation. The introduction continues with scenes inside the American embassy in Teheran. Director Affleck and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto stay close and handheld to convey a sense of claustrophobia as the mob outside gathers. The opening culminates with the embassy being stormed by protesters who take everyone in the building hostage.

But In another part of the building, six Americans manage to escape to a back street and hole up in the Canadian embassy.

Ten weeks later, the State department asks for help from the CIA on how to “exfiltrate” the six, which is where Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. In their briefing they conclude that there are no good options and no plausible cover stories. Teachers and NGOs have all fled, and Western journalists would be taken into custody or executed. Their “best bad option” comes from Mendez, who had worked with Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), in the past. His idea: pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff, then leave the country via the airport. It sounds implausible but as you no doubt have heard, Argo is based on a true story.

Tell Me a Story

Argo is a competent, mainstream and conventional thriller, with a nail-biting ending. It’s also a nicely layered tale about storytelling. It’s about putting on a show and telling a plausible story. Director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio work that idea into every corner of the film.

For example, Mendez travels to Hollywood to learn just enough about movies to be able to convince an Iranian guard. (Chambers tells Mendez “I can teach a rhesus monkey to direct in a day,” a funny little jab at Affleck). Chambers gets his friend Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, stealing scenes) to sign on as a producer. “We need something authentic,” says Mendez, so they come up with the idea of getting press coverage in the trades. They stage a reading of the script, in costume, with the hopes that the media will come and eat it up.

Affleck uses a cross-cutting montage during the reading — it’s a technique that seems out of place because it’s usually used at the end of a film to heighten tension. But this time Affleck is cross-cutting between the media-staged movie event in the U.S. with the kangaroo-court trial of American diplomats in Iran. The montage concludes with Chambers asking Mendez whether he thinks all this — indicating the press conferences in Iran — is just done for the cameras .

Taking Liberties

The power of storytelling makes one last appearance during the climax. An Iranian security agent doesn’t like the story of the sci-fi movie, and can’t believe they would consider filming in Iran. Someone has to convince him that the space opera is really about a land invaded by aliens, where the local populace — farmers and workers, must rise up against the foreigners — a story that, properly framed, now resonates with this security agent.

So yes, Argo works not just as a tense thriller but also as a thoughtful movie about the power of story. It’s also a decent entertainment. Team Hollywood — Goodman and Arkin — play their parts to big laughs. As a thriller, it’s well edited and carefully paced; Affleck and editor William Goldenberg draw out the tension as the Americans carry out their plan.

Maybe Affleck goes a little too far. The runway chase scene felt implausibly manipulative. But in the name of telling a good story, it’s okay to take a few liberties.