By now, even the most critical among us should have accepted the fact that Ben Affleck is a great director. His first efforts, 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town, were two of the best crime dramas to come out of America in the past decade—taut, claustrophobic tales of men and women straining at their leashes in the tiny, blue-collar neighborhoods that make up their entire worlds. With Argo, Affleck proves he can step up the scope and helm a globe-trotting political thriller with just as much skill and assuredness.
Argo is a mostly factual account of a strange episode of the infamous 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. Tasked with smuggling six U.S. embassy clerks from their hiding place in the Tehran home of the Canadian ambassador, the CIA cooked up an outlandish plan to sneak the "houseguests" out, disguised as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a science-fiction movie. To make their fake movie look real, the CIA enlisted the help of John Chambers, the makeup maestro who sculpted Spock's pointy ears and won a special Academy Award for his work on the Planet of the Apes movies. The plan was, indeed, so crazy that it worked, but bragging rights were kept under lock and key until President Clinton declassified the mission in 1997.
Appropriately enough, Affleck begins his valentine to Hollywood with a storyboard that sums up several hundred years of Iranian history and offers a glib but serviceable answer to the "why do they hate us?" question. The prologue segues into a brilliantly staged and harrowing sequence depicting the takeover of the American embassy in Iran and the almost accidental escape of the six clerks (played by Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé, and Christopher Denham). The group is taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), but their chances of being discovered and executed increase with every day they spend holed up in the ambassador's house. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA expert on disguise and "exfiltration," is called to Washington to orchestrate their escape. He, in turn, enlists the aid of prosthetics whiz Chambers (John Goodman) to convince Iranian officials that the clerks are actually filmmakers; it is, to paraphrase Mendez, the best bad idea they can come up with.
Of course, if they're going to be fake filmmakers, they're going to need a fake movie. To that end, Mendez calls upon Lester Siegel, played by a scene-stealing Alan Arkin, a fading movie producer who still has the chutzpah to get a project off the ground. (Interestingly, Siegel is the only major character who was invented for the movie.)
So Affleck is juggling three very different scenarios—the tense political thriller playing out in the Middle East, the satirical circus act set in Washington, D.C., and the light-hearted comedy that takes gentle jabs at the movie business. Affleck shifts settings and moods seamlessly as he orchestrates a daunting production. Even with more than 100 speaking parts, the characters are so carefully drawn that we never lose track of anyone in the chaos. And even though we know the outcome already, Argo never ceases to entertain as Affleck constantly ratchets up the tension.
For a movie that pays such affectionate tribute to Hollywood's capacity for embellishment, Argo is a surprisingly low-key film. This is never more evident than in the character of Mendez himself. Though the movie's climax is beefed up a bit to give us the sort of Hollywood thrills we've come to expect, Affleck never takes the bait when it comes to the real-life spy he portrays. This is a man whose former job title was Chief of the OTS Disguise Section; his exploits sometimes made the Mission: Impossible crew look like amateurs, but Affleck's performance, like most of the movie, is a study in quiet restraint.
There is, however, one guy left who still doesn't seem to entirely trust Affleck as a director, and that guy is Affleck himself. If Argo has any significant flaws, they're in the fleeting moments when he makes choices that are a little beneath him. There's plenty of drama wired into the story he's telling, so do we really need those syrupy moments that play up his character's alcoholism, or his estrangement from his wife and young son? Luckily, even Affleck saw the stones in that path; by his own account, he cut a good seven minutes of those scenes from the film before its release.
Does Argo make a few unneeded concessions to treacly Hollywood clichés? Sure it does. But it also made me feel better about the world. Like most people I know, I spend too much time watching the news and thinking how dumb, selfish, and mean people can be. Argo reminded me that people can also be brilliant, kind, and astonishingly courageous.