It’s rare as a pink giraffe, but every once in a blue moon a movie comes along in which each piece fits seamlessly and every detail works. Argo is one of them. I have come to regard Ben Affleck as better, stronger and more self-assured behind a camera than he is in front of one, but in this exemplary, meticulously detailed thriller about a fake movie that saved real lives, he wears both hats magnificently. The result is a movie that defines perfection.
Gifted, intelligent and full of cogent ideas, Mr. Affleck can almost always be depended on to come up with something fascinating, coherent and thoroughly cinematic. Argo, his third feature film as a director after Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010), is no exception. It grabbed me by the lapels and held my attention for two solid hours without a sideward glance, and I can’t wait to see it again. You have to see it twice if you want to absorb the myriad pieces of a jigsaw too fantastic to accept as fact, although we know going in that the recently declassified records of an amazing history lesson prove otherwise. This movie is not only true, but unbelievably true.
The story that has come to light at last is the suspenseful account of a top-secret collaboration between the CIA and the Canadian government to rescue six escaped Americans during the November 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. After trying vainly to westernize Islam, the ailing Shah fled to America and the Ayatollah took control of the government, storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taking 52 panic-stricken employees as prisoners in a siege that lasted 69 days. Six members of the staff escaped and took secret refuge in the Canadian embassy, fearing for their lives while mobs raged outside and the military police searched the rooms of all foreigners in Tehran, who were sudden candidates for the Ayatollah’s popular punishment of public beheadings in the square. Argo is about the desperate attempts to save their lives after 444 days in hiding and about the audacious bravery of one CIA “exfiltration” expert named Tony Mendez, who came up with an impossible plan that finally worked, against all the odds known to man. The scheme: Mendez must find a rotten script gathering dust on a studio reject pile, get into the country posing as a producer and then sneak the six American hostages back across the border masquerading as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction movie called Argo, to be shot in primitive Iranian locations that look like the surface of the moon.
Mr. Affleck is unrecognizable as Mendez— ethnic, bearded, yet handsomer than ever—and he plays him with a graceful assurance that equals his firm grip as a serious director. Helping him put his hair-raising plan into action is a vast team of grim-jawed secret agents in Virginia and assorted movie-industry egomaniacs who play their new roles as recruits for a world cause with wit and relish—including a wisecracking veteran producer (Alan Arkin) and an Oscar-winning makeup artist (John Goodman). The first-rate supporting cast is headed by Chris Messina, Barry Livingston and Bryan
Cranston of TV’s Breaking Bad,among others. Chris Terrio’s stupendous screenplay chronicles an admirable mastery of vast details unfolding in CIA headquarters, in the private residence of the protective Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), who emerged a hero for his courage under fire surrounded by hostile forces, and in the danger zones of Iran itself. As the preposterous plan actually becomes a reality, grinding suspense blends with satiric glances at humor in the least expected places.
Above all, Mr. Affleck’s virtuosity overwhelms, without self-conscious computer gimmicks. The violence contained in the action sequences never overrides the director’s sense of dramatic understatement. Argo is a triumph. It has tension, sincerity, mystery, artistic responsibility, entertainment value, technical expertise, a narrative arc and a thrilling respect for the tradition of how to tell a story with minimum frills and maximum impact. It’s a great footnote to history, one of the best films of 2012 and a sure-fire contender on Oscar night.
Running Time 120 minutes
Written by Chris Terrio and Joshuah Bearman (article)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman