A thinking man’s espionage thriller that gives weight to the notion that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, Argo quickly dispels any lingering doubts as to whether or not Ben Affleck’s recent acclaim as a director is just a fluke. Affleck directs with even more confidence and capability than he displayed in Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), and lets this slightly surreal true story unfold on its own, resisting the urge to sensationalize any of its inherently fantastic aspects. It’s that rare form of political thriller: perfectly paced, compelling, engrossing, and believable.
That believability derives not only from true-story status (although some of the details are, of course, embellished), but also from its almost precognative timeliness. (It’s almost impossible to watch Argo without the images of recent events popping up in the backs of our minds.) At to that exquisite period detail and a deliberate attempt to capture the look of the era by using grainy film stock and even opening with a ’70s-era Warner Bros. logo, and Argo starts to resemble a lost thriller recently liberated from the recesses of the studio’s vault.
If the story weren’t true, you’d swear it was based on one of the more far-fetched episodes of Mission: Impossible. The movie opens with a brief history of Western involvement in Iranian regime change, before opening on 1979, when Islamist militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. (They were held for 444 days.) Six others manage to escape, and take refuge at the Canadian embassy. It’s a limited haven, as it’s only a matter of time before the Republican Guard realize someone has slipped the net and track them down.
Enter Affleck as Tony Mendez, a CIA field operative specializing in exfiltration, the fine art of getting VIPs out of less-than friendly environments. Mendez has never left anyone behind, but the obstacles involved in this operation are so daunting that his best option is a rather far-fetched one: fly into Iran posing as a movie producer scouting locations for a B-grade science fiction flick, outfit the refugees with a cover story of being Canadian filmmakers, and waltz them through triple-layered airport security to a Swiss Air flight home.
Mendez and company go so far to sell the con as to take out ads in Variety, set up a production office, hire accomplished special effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and hold PR events to promote the project (the Argo of the title). In reality, Chambers, the man who created Spock’s iconic ears, had worked as a consultant for Mendez (an accomplished disguise artist) for years; Siegel is a fictional substitution for make-up artist Bob Sidell (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). The two provide some comic relief, and the movie’s interludes in Hollywood are a nice juxtaposition to the stark events unfolding half a world away.
Affleck casts low-profile veteran actors that include Bryan Cranston, Titus Welliver, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, and Clea Duvall to give his characters depth without overpowering the roles or undermining the story. As the lead actor, he delivers a muted, low-key performance as a man who’s as scared as the people he intends to rescue, but who nevertheless projects an almost unearthly degree of self-control.
As a director, Affleck keeps the pacing tight, ratcheting up the tension without the usual clichéd shoot-outs, fist-fight, and/or explosions (not that those aren’t fun) by focusing on the race against time, the ever-increasing sense of impending doom, and the knowledge of what would likely happen if they get caught. He carefully builds to a break-neck conclusion that essentially boils down to a race to catch a flight with an outcome we already know, and still manages to keep us white-knuckling our armrests while perched on the edge of our seats.
It is usually with a rising director’s third or fourth feature that his or her talent and skill (or lack thereof) begins to crystallize and take shape; in which case Affleck has now proven beyond a doubt that he’s a creative force to be reckoned with.