Argo did well at the box office over the weekend. As someone who thinks we desperately need more intelligent, smartly scripted, adult-oriented thrillers, I take it as encouraging news. But even among Argo’s fans, I can’t be alone in thinking that director Ben Affleck pushed the melodramatic envelope a tad too far in the film’s climactic moments.
Argo was marketed as a Real-Life Rescue Film — the untold story of how American intelligence operatives parachuted into Iran to rescue embassy workers hiding inside the Canadian consulate. As far as premises go, it’s a perfect pressure cooker — as the days tick by, the violence on the streets escalates, and secret agent man Tony Mendez (Affleck) realizes that he’s running out of time to escort these scared diplomats across state lines, using faux identities to navigate airport customs, the stakes increase exponentially. It all builds to a frenzy as a photo of one of the embassy workers matches the reconstructed shredded photo from the dumped consulate files; Iranian troops race to the consulate, then to the airport, and Ben Affleck narrowly escapes execution as the airplane beats the military vehicles in racing down the runway.
(MORE: TIME’s review of Argo)
Affleck had me until the airport. In reality, the Americans made their escape from the country and then the Canadian consulate was abandoned later in the day. But in the film, it’s presented as a single, simultaneous event, meant to suggest that the Iranian authorities caught on earlier, and just nearly missed capturing the hostages in transit. In reality, there was no sprint down the runway, as the army vehicles raced to catch up with a speeding airplane about take flight.
In hindsight, I wish that Argo had been marketed less as a Rescue Film than as a Siege Thriller. For nothing at the airport can match the palpable suspense evoked by the opening sequence, as an angry mob finally escalates from protests to violence, climbing the embassy fence and storming the castle. Masterfully paced and structured, I found this opening siege horrifying in its swiftness and severity — successfully setting up the audience to understand why some staff felt compelled to leave, why some chose to stay, and how an orderly standoff quickly devolved into chaos.
The siege also serves as a nifty plot device, allowing Affleck to bring the audience up to speed on the issues of Iran at that time. We first hear American diplomats pleading with the local police, hopeful that they can quell or push back the mob. But we quickly learn that the police are no longer capable — or willing — to help, and that with each passing hour, this staff finds themselves more isolated. Guns are loaded, and the decision is made to abandon ship — which in this case means destroying documents and dossiers. As soldiers run downstairs, ready to go down shooting, the embassy staff quickly sets to destroying all the work they’ve helped to create. Diplomacy is being shredded and burned, one page at a time.
Staff members who are helping Iranians get American visas realize the situation isn’t just bad for intelligence — but lethal for their guests. They quickly usher out the locals, realizing that new lines of allegiance — and new definitions of “enemy of the state” are being drawn in real-time — and they then make the emotional decision to abandon their post. They slip out the back, as the mob pushes their way upstairs and in a flash sovereign territory becomes ground zero for an international incident.
It’s this opening sequence that lingers with me — the surge of the mob, the eye of the storm, the calm realization that the end is here and the professionalism with which the diplomats set to destroying sensitive materials even as their death may be knocking. With no narration, little explanation and absolutely no hero coming to the rescue, Affleck evokes the isolation and fear, and uses that state of horror to infuse all the scenes in California — with movie producers debating their fictional production — with an added undercurrent of urgency. If Argo is just an average rescue drama, it is an exceptional siege thriller, with an unforgettable opening sequence that puts you right there…in the lion’s den.