Deception can be a bitch to pull off, especially if its elaborate and consisting of a lot of unpredictable, moving parts. Take “Argo,” the new political thriller directed and starring Ben Affleck, which is the story of a wild CIA operation where the agency had to extract six American diplomats working in Iran who were in hiding at the house of the Canadian ambassador after they escaped from the American embassy there in 1979, right when a band of irate acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the place. These six Americans, Robert Anders (Tate Donovan), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), his wife Cora (Clea Duvall), Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy) and Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe) know that if the Iranian revolutionaries realize they escaped, they’ll be hunted like dogs and likely subject to a public execution.
The CIA, represented by “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his associate Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) scrambled to find a way to get these people out of the increasingly hostile Iran, until Mendez comes up with an insane, complicated plan: have him and the 6 workers pose as a Canadian film crew doing a location scout for a Hollywood film. To borrow a cliche that’s old enough to file for Social Security, it’s a story so crazy it must be true.
Ben Affleck and his screenwriter Chris Terrio are fully aware of how crazy this mission, which wasn’t declassified until 1997, was. That energy is what makes “Argo” such an electric piece of mainstream entertainment, one where Affleck puts his blossoming filmmaking skills to work to do something highly unusual: lacing a political thriller with some sharply observed satirical comedy.
It would’ve been a mistake to remove the levity from the ludicrous conceit of the movie; the movie knows how ridiculous its central conceit is. So does Mendez at first (who Affleck ably plays as an understated, quiet anchor), desperate to get these six diplomats home, even though the CIA has found every other possible option unfeasible, as the situation with Iran grows more unstable and dire by the day. So Mendez comes up with the idea to have the six diplomats pretend to be screenwriters, producers, etc. and under this guise take a plane out of Tehran to Switzerland, safe and sound. For this plan to work, Mendez has to go through the actual process of getting this fake movie made. With the help of legendary makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and washed-up producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), they find a script for a cheap “Star Wars” knockoff called “Argo,” and they go through the process of securing the rights, making up story boards, setting up table reads and press junkets, all for a movie that will never exist.
Meanwhile the six diplomats are trapped inside the Canadian ambassador’s house, which has become a nesting ground of frazzled nerves and forgotten hope, trapped in a country consumed by upheaval. These two threads are so disparate, and so different in tone until they meet, which makes “Argo” even more impressive in that it walks the tightrope between satire and thriller with uncommon dexterity. Mendez’s trip to Hollywood to put “Argo” together is a wonderfully funny attack on the vapidness of the Hollywood process. Goodman and Arkin are both excellent here, representing the hurdles of what Siegel calls the “bullshit business.”
The reason why the comedy and drama mesh so well is because the CIA is in the “bullshit business” as well. Mendez has to teach the diplomats on the fly how to act and behave like Canadian filmmakers. They have to know their individual manufactured histories like the backs of their hands. “Argo” is a fake movie, the selling it was all to real. By using two different tones, Affleck and Terrio (who’s water-tight script is a model of economic storytelling) are painting the same picture, but with two different brushes. They also make satirical jabs at the Iranian situation itself; the opening prologue explains the whole history involving Khomeini and the Shah as a comic book, not afraid to quietly point out that the whole situation is partially America’s fault. It’s political history done with a smirk, not a glower.
“Argo,” which is masterfully paced throughout, builds to a wellspring of suspense, when Mendez has to lead the diplomats through a public market on a “location scout,” with hostile revolutionaries literally surrounding them, and then later at the airport, making the minutia of the boarding process even more agonizing than one would ever imagine. Affleck’s camera, given a burnished glow by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, is right in the actor’s faces, capturing every sweat-soaked moment, and darting through the crowded streets of Tehran and the offices at Langley with unobtrusive skill. There isn’t an unnecessary line or shot in the film’s two hours; in an era where movies are getting more and more bloated, that kind of economy is a saving grace.
Affleck knows to use an ensemble of actors, a skill on display in all three of his films. While “Argo” doesn’t have a galvanizing supporting performance like Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” or Jeremy Renner in “The Town,” there isn’t a weak spot either. Cranston, so brilliant week after week on “Breaking Bad,” emits an implosive authority as O’Donnell. Affleck is at his best when he isn’t trying to do to much, giving Mendez a quiet but ever-present confidence. McNairy is also strong as Stafford, the Embassy worker who has trouble buying the insanity that Mendez is selling to them.
“Argo” does briefly stumble into Ron Howard territory in the last 10 minutes, when Alexandre Desplat’s score, which had been simmering in the background, erupts into a saccharine boil and we get a lot flag-waving corn, but that’s a minor complaint. “Argo” is an exhilarating throwback to 70’s-era filmmaking, when thoughtful storytelling and subtle thematic inquiry reigned supreme. Affleck scores his third straight victory as a director, bringing to mind the work of Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet and putting him in the company of America’s most vital contemporary filmmakers. Without dipping too much into nostalgia of an era gone by, “Argo” is a special kind of a great film: heavy on real-world importance, but still light on its feet.