Half Hollywood fantasy, half true story, Argo is a revelation. In his previous two movies as a director (Gone Baby Gone and The Town), Ben Affleck demonstrated a gift for assured, adult filmmaking. But Argo ratchets up the stakes considerably – this is a talky picture, based on a historical incident where the outcome is already known – yet it still proves much more engrossing than crime dramas or bank robberies. The movie is accomplished enough to stand alongside the 1970s political thrillers that inspired it, right down to the vintage red-and-black Warner Bros. logo that opens the film.
Affleck has also directed himself into giving one of the best performances of his career – the observant, quick-thinking CIA agent Tony Mendez, whose book, along with an article in Wired magazine, were the basis for the script (the case was declassified during President Clinton’s administration).
When the U.S. embassy was overrun in Tehran in 1979, 52 men and women were taken hostage, but six managed to escape and hole up inside the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Mendez was assigned to extract those six escapees and bring them home, which was next to impossible with the world’s attention focused on the hostage standoff and Iran shoring up the security of its borders.
His plan, which sounds too far-fetched to be real, required the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and a seen-it-all film producer (Alan Arkin, playing a composite of various individuals). The idea was to go into Tehran posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars-knockoff titled Argo, then leave the country with the six escapees in tow. Affleck juxtaposes the pomposity and self-aggrandizing swagger of the film industry with the increasingly tense situation inside the ambassador’s home, creating a tone that’s both funny and suspenseful.
Argo is filled with character actors capable of making talky exposition exciting (Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s amusingly no-nonsense boss) and the period details, from the pork-chop sideburns to the aviator sunglasses, are spot-on. The film may exaggerate certain incidents and invent suspenseful moments, but it never crosses into implausible territory, and it draws you closer as it unfolds. Affleck keeps the tangled plot clear, and he lets the tension mount gradually, building to a breathtaking set piece at the Tehran airport that is as exciting as anything in an action movie this year. Argo may play a bit loose with the facts, but it's hard to imagine anyone complaining.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan.
Director: Ben Affleck.
Screenwriter: Chris Terrio.
Producers: Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Grant Heslov.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.