Director: Ben Affleck
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: GK Films
You can’t make up this stuff. Not stuff this good, anyway. First, the stuff we all know. During the tumultuous Iranian revolution of 1979, the rebel leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gained control of the monarchy and his loyal followers stormed the U.S. embassy, taking 66 hostages. With the U.S. government apoplectic with outrage but frustratingly checkmated, a CIA operative named Tony Mendez concocted an utterly surreal, high-risk scenario designed to extract from Iran six American diplomats who had fled the besieged American embassy and found temporary refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The plan? Mendez, the “infiltration expert” and master of disguise, would slip into Tehran in disguise under a false identity and train the six escapees to pose as fellow members of a movie crew scouting locations for a fake science fiction epic titled Argo.
The spine-tingling details of the shaggy dog cloak-and-dagger escape made for a fascinating read in Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 feature story in Wired. In Argo, expertly directed by and starring Ben Affleck, from Chris Terrio’s screenplay, these same extraordinary, sometimes bizarre events make for an equally suspenseful, pulse-racing and satisfying movie experience. Dense with period details that nail the look, sound and feel of the era, Argo is especially razor smart as it shuttles between scenes of all hell breaking loose in Tehran contrasted with the endearing absurdity of druggy, faux-hip ’80s Hollywood. Affleck skillfully and subtly plays Mendez as an isolated, burned-out, divorced CIA man and is every bit as good in his undercover persona as an Irish film producer joining forces in a mock film production company with a gruff, no-nonsense, hilarious Oscar-winning makeup artist, played by John Goodman, who kills in the role.
The charade also involves a rascally, egomaniacal veteran film producer played, for keeps, by the irreplaceable Alan Arkin. On the government side of the movie's ledger, there is also sterling work from Bryan Cranston as a veteran CIA agent who helps plan the caper. Self-referential Hollywood self-satire flies thick and fast. There's even a circus-like movie press junket filled with journalists, starlets, leeches and walk-on appearances by ’80s movie stalwarts like Adrienne Barbeau. Affleck clearly knows the territory. The documentary-like scenes set in Iran are even better, with Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Tate Donovan registering especially convincingly among the excellent actors playing the frightened, edgy and resourceful hostages whose lives are on the line every second.
Affleck, having now directed his third strong feature film after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, works in a solid, gritty, non-show-offy style. This is his very best movie yet, and it deserves to be a widely seen crowd-pleaser. It’s also nice to report that Argo plays its hand pretty fairly; Iranian characters are at least depicted in slightly more shaded, complex ways than in most American films. Not only is the U.S. role in propping up the Shah made quite clear, but so also is the role played by Canada in the hostage rescue effort. Argo is a great time at the movies. It's more than worth your attention, and it’s almost certainly going to grab the attention of awards-givers.