Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is a blend of incredible true story and Hollywood movie magic. This is illustrated perfectly in the movie’s opening explanation of the backstory behind the 1979 Iran Revolution. It’s a combination of real world footage and classic storyboard drawings, which sets up two things. It not only mirrors the film’s true story of creating a fake movie to rescue six American hostages from Iran, but also emphasizes the style in which Affleck tells this true story. There is close attention to facts with just the right amount of flourish and embellishment. It’s smart Hollywood, and it’s smart filmmaking. After only two directorial features before this (2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and 2010’s “The Town”), Affleck’s third feature feels like the work of a real veteran, and it’s the one that’ll give him his due come Oscar night.
A group of about fifty Americans were taken hostage at the Embassy in Iran, but six of them got away and were secretly housed by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). It’s been too long keeping them there, and the CIA needs a plan to get them out. Tony Mendez is a professional CIA “extractor” who’s the best at getting people out of these situations. Out of the possibilities the CIA hatches up, it ends up being Mendez’s seemingly outlandish plan that becomes the most plausible. At the height of sci-fi movie popularity after the huge success of “Star Wars,” the idea of filmmakers doing location scouting in an exotic, foreign land is apparently believable.
Ah, the power of Hollywood. Also the absurdity, and poking fun at the industry is where a lot of the film’s humor comes from, which is an unexpected addition considering the life-or-death scenarios of Iran it addresses at the same time. The script from Chris Terrio is a triumph in this complex tonal balance as well as its tight, focused precision in executing the rescue of the American hostages. Most thrillers create tension from car chases and fire fights, but here breathless excitement is manufactured through exquisite timing and careful plotting. It’s a race to the airport between Mendez with his fake film crew and the Iranian revolutionaries uncovering the identities of the missing hostages — and it’s white-knuckle, nail-biting suspense.
The setup of the rescue mission had to be fabricated down to the details of a real script, producers and even press coverage. Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a hardened and snarky film producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), an accomplished makeup artist, jump on-board and make sure the project — which, needless to say, never gets made — is the real deal. This leads to a script reading at the Beverly Hilton with the “real” film crew in a scene that beautifully intercuts with the “fake” film crew preparing their nerves for the inevitable escape. It’s an affecting moment and brings to light the real world implications, how this moment in history foreshadowed the political landscape we live in today.
Affleck’s high-class popcorn pleaser shares a love for the transcending power of movies while reminding us why we go to the movies. There’s a scene where Iran airport security is shown storyboards for the fake “Argo,” and they’re enchanted. Performances across the board are great: Cranston easily breaks free of any “Breaking Bad” restraints while Goodman and Arkin prove a comic pairing. Affleck as Mendez is nicely understated, and we learn that he’s a father, as well. “Argo” paints Mendez as an American hero, just like, yes, something straight out of a movie.