I haven't seen a lot of movies at the theater this year, as my foot injury has made it pretty impossible to sit for multiple hours in a multiplex but now that I'm feeling much better, I was able to make it to the theater over the weekend to see what is -- admittedly against not much competition -- the best film I've seen this year. Ben Affleck's Iran hostage crisis movie Argo is incredibly tense, gripping, dramatic, funny, engaging, and just an edge-of-your-seat grown-up thriller in a way that does not happen frequently enough in the movies these days. Some reviewers have quibbled with Affleck's acting (he isn't exactly commanding in the role) but everyone I've read has universally praised the film, particularly its tension, and I wholeheartedly agree. For a movie where the ending is known (it's based on real events), I couldn't believe how frightened I was for the safety of the characters throughout. Just a really well made film. By Ben Affleck. Yes, that Ben Affleck. That's actually three really good directing movies in a row for him, following Gone Baby Gone and The Town with what is definitely his best effort, a likely Oscar contender.
The movie starts out with documentary style footage of the events in Iran that led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that deposed the evil, westernized Shah that the U.S. and Britain put into place in the '50s, and replaced him with Ayatollah Khomeini, whose oversized image looms over this film and pretty much the entirety of Iran. Seems to me the Iranians traded a secular despot for a religious one and that seems a horrible tradeoff but that discussion is for another film. When the U.S. gave the Shah asylum so he could receive cancer treatments, protests against America (already very much hated in the country) broke out on the streets in front of our Embassy. After a few tense days, the mostly student protesters stormed the embassy grounds and took some 60 American diplomats hostage, for what ended up being the next 444 days, costing Jimmy Carter his presidency and ushering in the era of Reaganism and the rebirth of conservatism that our economy is still reeling from today (thanks Iran!). But anyway, while the films starts with some harrowing scenes of the embassy takeover and its aftermath, the story focuses instead on a little known side story -- the six U.S. diplomats who escaped the embassy during the raid from the protesters and took refuge at the Canadian ambassador's private residence. That is the story of Argo, with Ben Affleck playing a CIA agent specializing in "exfiltration" (pulling people out of highly dangerous situations) and he becomes tasked with planning these 6 Americans' rescue while the president and State Department try (in vain) to gain the release of the publicly held hostages.
The interesting twist in the story, only made public after President Clinton declassified a lot of the information of the hostage crisis, is that Affleck's character uses his connection to a Hollywood special effects artist to come up with a scenario ("the best bad idea we've got") to extract the Americans by having them pose as a Canadian film crew on a location shoot for a sci-fi Star Wars ripoff called "Argo". The sendup of Hollywood in the scenes in the middle starring John Goodman as the special effects guy and Alan Arkin as a has-been producer are the sources of comedy amid the incredible tension in the rest of the film and although for a moment or two, the contrast is a little jarring, the transition between the two worlds (Hollywood and Iran) is actually handled quite remarkably and make the film more enjoyable by allowing the audience a breather to laugh in between scenes of terrible drama. I won't get into any more details of the film because there are so many layers and so many stories that it's best to discover them yourself, but the most amazing part of the movie to me was the apparently historically accurate revelation that the Iranians used sweatshop-style child labor to piece together the documents that the U.S. embassy shredded at the last moment, and which include the pictures of the now discovered missing 6 diplomats in hiding. This ratchets the tension and provides the framework for the the drama -- can Affleck's hurried fake movie coverup get the Americans out before their identities are found. But it also says a lot about the culture of the leadership that took over that once great nation and still rules it to this day (and remains possibly our greatest threat to peace).
Anyway, it's a really entertaining, thrilling, tense, near-perfect film that features great supporting performances by Bryan Cranston and John Goodman and Alan Arkin and the lesser-known (to me at least) cast members portraying the Canadian ambassador's "Houseguests," who each bring a personality to their roles despite limited screen time until the end. A really great film. Go see it.