Ben Affleck’s Argo so expertly balances its seemingly disparate story elements—the political history, the high-flying Hollywood satire, the great escape, the father seeking redemption—it signals a marked directorial growth from Affleck in one of the year’s best movies.
Moving away from the Boston setting of his first two pictures (Gone Baby Gone, The Town), Affleck, himself a politico of sorts, tackles the 1979 Iran hostage crisis which saw Americans held for 444 days, zeroing in on the formerly classified story of six embassy workers who manage to escape the coup by militant Islamic students and find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The heat comes down with each passing day; their lives are at stake and chances of getting out alive slim.
Stateside, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches a last-chance plan so outrageous it couldn’t possible work – to enter Tehran surreptitiously as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi opera named Argo–hence extracting the six refugees en route back to the U.S.
The film opens with a spectacularly exciting embassy overthrow and its first third is political thriller on the order of Alan Pakula or perhaps homage to 1970s Costa Gavras, before moving to a lighter second act where Mendez goes to Hollywood, enlisting the services of a pair of cynical producers (John Goodman, Alan Arkin, both top-notch) who, of all things, want to maintain the integrity of their imaginary endeavor.
These two acts are a set-up for the third, a tense and satisfying descent into Tehran, where Affleck really shows off his chops for directing a shrewd, screw-tightening exercise—Argo is a real thriller in its final acts, as the hostages are disguised and smuggled, with several near misses, throughout the country. Some have unfairly noted that the climax is pure Hollywood—as if there’s anything wrong with that in a movie that uses a Hollywood MacGuffin as its lynchpin—in its masterfully directed escape scenes.
No matter. By the time the plane is on the runway and the Iranian military has been duped, Argo has built and released extraordinary tension and goodwill and even has something to say about what a real hero is, both to his political prisoners and his estranged wife and ten-year-old son back home, a fresh wound Mendez nurses throughout the picture. Affleck, 70s styled with shaggy hair and laid back, low-key demeanor, displays impressive courage and vulnerability as a guy at both personal and professional crossroads.
Excellent support also comes from Bryan Cranston, better in every picture, as the CIA boss who goes out on a limb to support Mendez’ “best bad idea,” and Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador hiding six souls in his living room.
Argo, with its bold storytelling, confident style and politically relevant subject matter of an embassy under attack and the human cost of the coup, is top-notch moviemaking. I can’t imagine anyone won’t immensely enjoy it.