Review: 'Argo' is 'Wag the Dog' in reverse

Posted at 10/17/12 10:26 PM

MANILA, Philippines – It’s been a long time since I’ve seen people clap with enthusiasm for a movie. This one deserves it.

Showered with early pre-Oscar buzz, "Argo," the new movie by former heartthrob turned star director Ben Affleck, hits all the right notes in this tale about a CIA “exfiltration” specialist who ferrets six Americans out of revolution-charged Tehran by disguising them as a Hollywood production crew.

It’s that rare movie that is both serious and fun, with a climax that made the cinema audience cheer. It also functions like the good-natured cousin of Barry Levinson’s "Wag the Dog": instead of a Hollywood producer making a fake war to hide an indiscretion, it’s about a producer making a fake movie to save American hostages.

Ben Affleck stars and directs "Argo"

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA specialist sent in to extract the six Americans out of Iran more than three months after the US embassy was captured by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979.

Right off the bat, the stakes are set up in machine-gun fashion – the toppling of Iran’s leader and the rise of the Ayatollah, the attack on the US embassy, the tension of the six American “houseguests” inside the Canadian ambassador’s residence and how the media constantly aired news about the Iranian hostage crisis.

By rooting the narrative in reality (to the point of recreating actual scenes of the revolution), Affleck gives a deft touch to the drama even before the second act kicks in about the CIA’s best bad idea for the escape. Affleck plays Mendez totally non-descript; preferring to let the rest of his cast get all the fun.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin play the odd couple as makeup artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel who set up the actual Studio Six Production office to give the illusion of a real movie. Arkin, as the foul-mouthed Siegel, knows this role like the back of his hand and his send-up of Hollywood producers is hilarious.

The sci-fi/comic book genre also gets some nods in this movie. Chambers lends some authenticity to "Argo" because he had won an Oscar for his masks on “Planet of the Apes.”

"Argo" is supposed to be based on the novel “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny, the storyboards were done by comic book legend Jack Kirby and the entire production was “birthed” when “BattleStar Galactica” was still on TV. You even see a Cylon taking a cigarette break at one point.

Some of the fun about watching this movie is reading the story that actually inspired it. That bit in the trailer about the plot to let the Americans use bicycles to reach the border? Yes, it actually happened. How about the ideas to disguise them as teachers or nutritionists or even aid workers? All true. The burning of the visa plates and other incriminating documents in the US Embassy and the use of “fake” passports officially issued by the Canadian government were also true.

What the movie fudges, like all “true-to-life” stories in Hollywood, is some embellishment in the ending. Affleck draws out the great escape with a series of red herrings: a trip to the local market, missing validation papers, a shredded photograph and even a hotheaded immigration officer who doesn’t quite believe their cover story.

It’s here though that Affleck shows his crowd-pleasing instincts: by keeping up the dramatic tension, the actual victory is that much sweeter. You will cheer at all this supersecret derring-do to save innocent lives.

Even more, you will cheer for Affleck for making one of the most entertaining movies of 2012.