From the retro Warner Bros. logo to the vintage font of the opening title sequence, everything about Argo screams “throwback.” I mean this as the highest possible compliment. Argo is reminiscent of great thrillers of the 1970’s like Three Days of the Condor and The Day of the Jackal. It reminds us that suspense is built, not shoved down our throats by kinetic editing and special effects. It is also another unqualified success for director Ben Affleck.
Argo is based on the true story of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 when 52 Americans were held captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for over a year. Six American diplomats managed to escape the embassy and were hidden by the Canadian ambassador. Argo centers around what followed, the details of which were only recently declassified. Affleck also stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA exfiltration expert tasked with getting the six fugitives out of Tehran before the Ayatollah’s agents discover their location. With no viable escape plan, Mendez hatches a seemingly insane scheme: disguise the Americans as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake science fiction film called Argo. Tony’s CIA boss gives the go ahead despite his skepticism, and Mendez heads to Hollywood to enlist the help of makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in creating the imaginary movie.
The genius of Affleck’s direction and the screenplay by Chris Terrio is the balance they achieve between humor and suspense. The movie shifts between the parallel stories of the Americans in hiding and Tony’s efforts to create a fake movie that will appear legitimate on the surface. Affeck pokes gentle fun at the Hollywood culture, where even a fake movie can generate pre-release buzz. Goodman and Arkin give textured performances as Hollywood veterans whose love of filmmaking is outweighed only by their patriotism.
The final act of the film is a masterpiece of escalating tension. Tony travels to Iran and makes contact with the Americans, who assume the identities of a Canadian film crew. Passing through a checkpoint, they must convince a group of skeptical Iranian soldiers that they are who they say. Watching the soldiers eyes light up as they are shown the Argo storyboards is a high point of the movie.
Argo is Affleck’s third film as director after Gone Baby Gone and The Town. The first two were actors’ showcases, and Argo is no exception. In addition to Goodman and Arkin, Bryan Cranston stands out as Tony’s boss, a veteran of the agency who radiates authority. Affleck ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable degree by the end. If it does nothing else, Argo proves that Ben Affleck is a born director, and should have a very fruitful career behind the camera.