After being surrounded by a mob of shouting protesters, a U.S. embassy is stormed and overwhelmed. That’s one real-life parallel the filmmakers didn’t intend for Argo, a sort-of-true story about six Americans escaping revolutionary Iran in 1979. But with the death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya still making news, the 30-year-old story leaps into relevance–although that same too-close-for-comfort vibe may cause moviegoers looking for Saturday night entertainment to pass. They shouldn’t. This is a taut, visually compelling and unexpectedly funny thriller that once again shows Ben Affleck to be a director of passion and panache.
It’s surreal to think that, faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation in Tehran and 52 American hostages held for eventual trial and punishment, including possible execution, the CIA and Canada would come up with a plan to “exfiltrate” the six as part of a Hollywood film crew scouting a Star Wars-knockoff. But Affleck and writer Chris Terrio didn’t make it up, though they have streamlined the story into the familiar three-act formula.
The Hollywood angle is a gift Affleck doesn’t waste, casting John Goodman as the make-up artist (whose work really did include Planet of the Apes and CIA disguises) and Alan Arkin as the real Hollywood producer who agrees to front the fake production. Throughout, their comic interplay is sublime, a pair of old pros pulling one over on the town where everyone is a liar and a charlatan. Affleck, as the CIA “exfil” specialist whose idea this is, gets a quick education in the film world; Affleck the director creates scenes that would test our credulity, if only this weren’t Hollywood.
Argo is similarly scrupulous (in a Hollywood way) with its portrayal of the period and the crisis. The opening sequence sets the tone and deftly brings the audience up to speed, and once the mob storms the embassy, the pace never lets up. The film’s greatest flaw is, ironically, one that a Hollywood producer unconcerned with the truth wouldn’t hesitate to change–setting the climactic escape in an airport security checkpoint. Where are the black helicopters, the drones, the fireballs and SEAL Team Six? Then again, anyone who has tried to board an airplane these days will surely sympathize.