“Argo” is not a deep movie, but it is an extraordinarily well-crafted one. It’s a political thriller in which we go in knowing the outcome, but the film continually surprises us and keeps us dancing on a razor’s edge of suspense.
After “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and this film, director/star Ben Affleck has established himself as a serious artist behind the camera — a weighty counterpart to the flighty star-making roles of his youth and tabloid twisting of his personal life. His direction is subtle yet impactful, touching the audience’s emotions without seeming like he’s trying to wow us.
Everyone knows the story of the 1979 uprising in Iran that deposed the U.S.-installed despotic shah in favor of a Muslim theocracy. The American embassy was overrun and dozens of diplomats held hostage for 444 days, being released on the day of the inauguration of Ronald Reagan (whom the Iranians feared would turn their country into a parking lot).
A largely forgotten footnote is that a half-dozen diplomats escaped the embassy and hid out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. They were smuggled out in January 1980 by the CIA, which concocted a convoluted and seemingly ludicrous cover story.
To wit: the American spies faked the commissioning of a science fiction adventure movie titled “Argo” — such cheap knockoffs of “Star Wars” were not uncommon in those days — even going so far as to option an existing screenplay, hire some veteran Hollywood figures as faux producers and stage a media event to announce their plan to shoot in Iran.
Then Tony Mendez (Affleck), the agency’s top “exfil” man, would fly into Tehran, meet with the Iranian culture ministers, and fly out with the ambassador’s “houseguests” posing as a Canadian film crew.
Even Mendez himself, a laconic sort not given to hyperbole or excessive speech, acknowledges that it’s a long shot. But it beats the other plans on the table: having the diplomats ride bicycles 300 miles to the border, or pose as agricultural officials come to help the local farmers grow crops — in the dead of winter.
“This is the best bad idea we have,” Mendez’ boss (Bryan Cranston) announces to the top brass.
The story segues into a fun ‘n’ games section, where John Goodman and Alan Arkin play showbiz old-timers who are just cynical enough about moviemaking to sign on. Goodman’s character, John Chambers, was a real Oscar-winning makeup artist — he did Spock’s ears on “Star Trek” and the gorilla masks on “Planet of the Apes” — who also helped out the CIA from time to time by disguising spies.
Arkin’s character is a composite, but he gets some of the movie’s best lines. “John Wayne’s in the ground six months, and this is what’s left of America,” he snorts while watching TV footage of the American hostages.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio, adapting Mendez’ book about the operation, shuttles back and forth between the action taking place in Tehran, Washington D.C. and Hollywood, building tension block by block. Especially effective is the cross-cutting between two press conferences, one in which the producers announce the production of “Argo” and the other where the revolutionaries spew vitriol, labeling all of the diplomatic staffers spies. (In fact, only three were.)
Also compelling is the painstaking reconstruction of secret documents that were shredded in the moments before the embassy fell, which are stitched together piece by piece by a small army of Iranian children and female weavers. We watch as these papers, including photographs of the missing diplomats, are slowly reconstituted, and it serves as the sands of an hourglass counting down the time they have left before discovery.
“Argo” is visually arresting, both for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s washed-out colors and the grooming styles of the Americans. It’s a litany of Cheetos mustaches, huge owlish eyeglasses and bowl haircuts that would seem like exaggeration — until we see photos of the actual people during the end credits and discover the resemblance is spot-on.
Everything in “Argo” fits together with clockwork precision; there is not a second of flab in its two-hour running time. The award season’s first lock for a Best Picture Oscar nomination has announced itself.