Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston
(PG, 120 min.)
“An idea that isn’t risky is hardly worth calling an idea.” Oscar Wilde
The modern thriller has perfected nonstop action. Today the extended chase is a literal art form. What has been sorely neglected, though, is the essential element of suspense. Argo has that in spades.
And it doesn't hurt that the film is based on some standout historical events that already have the underpinnings of great drama: the November 4th, 1979, storming of our embassy in Tehran and the subsequent taking of 52 American hostages. By using real televised pictures of the event and a staccato series of quick sequences, the film captures the frenetic feel of the embassy storming. We feel the dread chill of the embassy workers who frantically attempt to shred all their documents, watching helplessly as the angry mob piles over embassy walls as in a medieval siege, the shards of broken windows the modern version of a castle breached.
What most of us didn't know until now is a secondary story, the rescue of six other Americans who somehow escaped capture and holed up in the Canadian Embassy.
Ben Affleck, in his third and critically acclaimed outing as a director, is being compared to Clint Eastwood, another actor whose real talent blossomed behind the lens. Affleck also stars as real life CIA "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez, whose bizarre idea of how to extract the six Americans from the increasingly dangerous Tehran is so crazy it might just work.
How many CIA strategies are born from watching a rerun of Planet of the Apes or talking to your son about his Star Wars figures? Well, perhaps it's better that we do not know
Mendez's idea is to pose as a Canadian film producer scouting out an exotic location in Iran for an new science fiction film. The six Americans will pose as his film crew.
"This is the best bad idea we have, sir," CIA Assistant Deputy Director Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) candidly tells his superior. It is just marginally better than the previous scheme of putting the six on bikes and having them cycle to the border.
Making that film seem real is the comic relief that allows us to get through the white-knuckle suspense of the attempted getaway. John Goodman, playing a Hollywood monster makeup artist, brings that same irresistible charm to his role as he did playing Denzel Washington's friendly drug dealer in Flight. Only here he's a good guy, but he doesn't hold back in his sassy assessment of the town that butters his bread.
"You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You'll fit right in," he tells Mendez.
Alan Arkin plays Lester Siegel, the "schlock" producer who helps hype the fictional film. As the irascible old pro he does some of his best work here. His deadpan "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit," seals his commitment to the project.
In Tehran it is anything but deadpan, though. And the Americans add to the tension with their cabin fever and misgivings about the planned escape. One low-key scene takes place at a street market. The six, who have watched casual executions from their windows, emerge from their embassy lair to meet the bureaucrats who must approve their film. Sure, we are absent the mad chase scenes we have come to expect in such places, with motorcycles careening through narrow alleys and toppling assorted baskets and fruit, but the tension here is almost suffocating. The six foreign faces wear fixed masks of calm, drawing stares and a brief eruption of violence. And yes, their stoic courage is every bit on a par with Jason Bourne's physical valor.
You will be fixed to your seat for almost the whole two hours. Enjoy this thriller in the Hitchcock tradition, its underlying suspense a steady and slow burn.
Part of Ben Affleck’s directorial excellence lies in his attention to detail. One such element he captures is the practice of commercial flights entering Iranian airspace, at which time all alcoholic beverages had to be relinquished. At some 30,000 feet above ground, the long arm of a tyrannical theocracy is indeed evident.
Of course, the opposite is also true. As soon as a flight exits Iran’s airspace, the cocktail bar is open.
What better way to celebrate the heroic friendship of the stalwart Canadian Ambassador than a toast using Canadian Club Whisky? This cocktail is appropriately named the Quagmyre, an apt description of the plight of our six Americans.
By the way, don't you think this rich concoction sounds like it might fit in well with your holiday festivities as well?
Scale ingredients to servings
1/2 oz Canadian Club Whisky
1/2 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
2 oz chocolate milk
1 1/2 oz Kahlua Coffer Liqueur
1 1/2 oz Perrier Soda Water
Pour ingredients into a brandy snifter. Shake until clear, and serve.