Argo | Movie review
Ben Affleck’s fact-based thriller is a first-rate procedural.
Hollywood’s powers that be seem determined to keep Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller under wraps until after the election. But those looking for declassified thrills will find those and more in Ben Affleck’s Argo, which makes the case for unacknowledged heroism during the Carter administration in the successful 1980 rescue of six Americans who’d narrowly escaped becoming hostages in Iran. The mission was known as exclusively Canadian until the CIA’s involvement was revealed in 1997; among other lessons, the movie vividly illustrates how the most important covert work often languishes in obscurity. Still, that may be too much political freight to place on a movie that’s primarily a first-rate procedural, a sort of real-life Wag the Dog.
While the escapees hide out at Iran’s Canadian embassy, the U.S. and our neighbor to the north conspire to have them pose as a film crew, ostensibly visiting Tehran only to scout locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This is the “best bad idea” the agency has, as Bryan Cranston’s heavy puts it, and it isn’t easily achieved. Because international authorities are likely to do their research, the production has to look real, which means recruiting Tinseltown to create a plausible preproduction backdrop.
Argo thus walks a delicate line between comedy—in Hollywood, old-time producer Alan Arkin won’t commit to making anything less than a fake hit—and suspense, as Ben Affleck’s grizzled CIA agent, Tony Mendez, wends his way to Tehran and coaches the frightened foreign-service functionaries. They have only a short time to learn their false identities, down to the way Torontonians pronounce their city (“Toronno”); as a consulate worker and his wife, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé are especially good. Aided by adroit pacing, tart dialogue and ample ’70s detail, the movie excitingly dramatizes accounts of what took place (although on the basis of a Wired article, it sounds as though the airport climax has been goosed). After Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now this directorial-best, Affleck is establishing himself as a major craftsman.