Film Review: Argo

Suspenseful, astounding true story of an improbable rescue mission during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Ben Affleck has directed one of the year's best films.

If Argo were a work of fiction, every studio in Hollywood would reject it as simply too incredible to be believed. But yes, the CIA really did concoct a scheme to rescue six Americans hiding out at the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis by using as a cover a bogus sci-fi movie production scouting Middle East locations. Three decades after the fact, Argo is finally a major motion picture: not a campy tale of invading space aliens, but a gripping drama of escaping diplomats.

Ben Affleck’s directing resume is now three for three, and Argo is his most accomplished work yet. The movie’s opening scenes, as angry protestors breach the American embassy in Tehran and the employees inside frantically destroy sensitive documents before being captured, are a vivid, intimate, pulse-quickening depiction of a terrifying descent into chaos. Six fortunate Americans manage to escape out a side exit and eventually find refuge with Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). But it’s only a matter of time until the Iranians learn of the existence of these secret “houseguests.”

That’s where CIA “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes in. Ruling out any other rescue scenario as unworkable, Mendez hatches what his superior calls “the best bad idea we have.” The six will be given new Canadian identities, passports and backstories, and pose as the crew of a Hollywood-financed fantasy film seeking exotic Iranian backdrops. The ruse will involve setting up a production office in L.A., optioning an existing sci-fi screenplay, creating storyboards, and even holding a screenplay reading with actors in costume to drum up publicity. Mendez turns to two Tinseltown pros for help: Academy Award-winning makeup artist and clandestine CIA disguise artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a composite character who vows, “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit.”

After the tension of the early Tehran sequences, the Hollywood interludes offer an unexpected dose of comic relief, as both Goodman and Arkin nail screenwriter Chris Terrio’s droll wisecracks about the Hollywood they barely tolerate. (Asked if one of the trapped Americans is up to the task of posing as a director, Chambers quips, “You can teach a rhesus monkey to direct.”)

Once Mendez arrives in Iran, the tension ratchets up once again. The location-scouting trip intended to reinforce the charade devolves into an unnerving encounter with mob ire, and that’s just the prelude to the big show: the trip to the airport and a high-risk bid for freedom. Terrio takes liberties with the actual climactic events and includes perhaps one close call too many. But he and Affleck succeed in creating a true nail-biter, even if you already know the outcome.

As director, Affleck doesn’t make a false step: Both the Tehran and Hollywood period milieus depicted feel richly authentic, as does the claustrophobic circumstance in which those six lucky but vulnerable Americans find themselves. Affleck the actor keeps his lead performance (working against an unflatteringly bushy ’70s hairstyle) low-key but credibly grounded. “Breaking Bad” Emmy winner Bryan Cranston lends solid support as Tony’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, and Scoot McNairy (a scene-stealer in the upcoming Killing Them Softly) is a standout as the most recalcitrant of the Tehran Six.

Unlike that doomed B-movie script from the 1970s, Argo has it all: suspense, humor, human drama, and an amazing true espionage caper to rival a screenwriter’s wildest conceit.