Generating suspense from a story that is a matter of historical record is no easy thing. That was the primary challenge facing Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio, the director-star and writer, respectively, of Argo, a thriller inspired by a real-life covert operation that helped rescue six U.S. embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It's a testament to the skills of the filmmakers that Argo delivers a deluge of suspense even when its ending is never in doubt.
There’s no way the movie industry could have resisted this stranger-than-fiction yarn. The film chronicles how CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) saved the six by establishing a phony cover story that they were a Canadian movie crew scouting locations in Tehran for a science-fiction cheapie titled Argo. Details of that real-life mission would not be declassified until 1997.
Affleck already has demonstrated he’s well past the days of being a Gigli joke. His previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were well-oiled thrill machines that didn’t skimp on characterization. The international intrigue of Argo is considerably more ambitious, but Affleck does an admirable job sticking to the basics of classical storytelling.
A concise prologue explains the Iranians’ anti-American rage in November 1979, when the reviled Shah fled to the U.S. in the wake of a popular uprising. Angry mobs surround and eventually storm the U.S. embassy, holding 52 American hostages captive for 444 days. In the midst of that initial chaos, six embassy workers find a hideout in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber, Milk).
The CIA, tasked with rescuing the half-dozen before the Iranians discover them, have no good options. Then Mendez catches Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV one evening, and inspiration strikes. He contacts Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman, The Artist), who has done contract work for the intelligence agency in the past, and devises one of those it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might-work schemes.
With the help of a crusty movie producer (Alan Arkin, The Change-Up), the CIA creates a fake production company. Mendez, posing as a Canadian producer, will fly to Iran, get the embassy workers and return them safely to America. State Department officials are skeptical, but Mendez’s CIA boss (Bryan Cranston, TV’s Breaking Bad) backs the cockamamie operation: “This is the best bad idea we have, by far.”
Argo plays fast and loose with the facts, which seems only fitting for a film commemorating the real-life heroics of moviemaking fantasia. There isn’t a drop of potential suspense that the film doesn’t bleed dry, and the parade of chases and close calls does teeter toward being a bit much by the time all is said and done.
Still, that’s a minor quibble. Argo is smart, tense and surprisingly funny, buoyed by the terrific comic timing of Goodman and Arkin. And the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Argo falls short of being the masterpiece that much of its Oscar buzz would have you believe, but it is still a blast, a crowd-pleaser for grown-ups.