Argo is a fine, intelligent film that stands between historical drama and political thriller. In recreating the rescue of a half-dozen U.S. embassy workers from Tehran during the hostage crisis, Affleck creates a sort of grown-up procedural with some amazingly taut sequences of high tension.
Affleck proved him a pretty capable director in his last outing, The Town. Here, his ambition has been seriously ramped up, as he’s created a world, and a cast, that looks perfectly ripped out of the late 1970s. He uses unknown actors for the six “house guests” who hid out with the Canadian ambassador while their colleagues were held by Iranian students trying to ransom back their viciously corrupt and ailing former Shah, who’d been given refuge by the United States. The actors are chosen for their close resemblance to the real house guests (as shown in comparison photographs during the credits), and their very un-Hollywood look, combined with solid performances as innocents under pressure, enhance the realism Affleck is so painstakingly creating.
The film, as has been widely publicized, is about how the CIA attempts a ridiculously long-shot rescue of the six by sending in “exfil expert” Tony Mendez (Affleck) as a film producer scouting locations, who then brings out the embassy workers as the rest of his crew. While the Tehran scenes that make up the bulk of the film are fairly relentlessly tense, there’s a good amount of comic relief in L.A., where Alan Arkin and John Goodman star as a couple of Hollywood characters enlisted to make Affleck’s cover story plausible. The way Goodman and Arkin are used underscores Affleck’s sense of pacing and balance.
If the film has a drawback (other than underselling the connection to comics god Jack Kirby), it’s that it seems to play fast and loose with some of the facts of the story. Certainly the Canadians will feel minimized in Affleck’s telling, and certain key sequences seem to have been invented to jack up the tension. (I say “seem to” because I haven’t read a full account of the true story. Google only gets you so far …) Nonetheless, many of the changes are arguably legitimate. It’s impossible to portray the anxiety the house guests felt as they lived month after month in confinement, in danger of discovery at any moment, and condensing that tension into a single confrontation at a bazaar or by making their trip to the airport far more nick-of-time frantic than most accounts suggest simplifies the experience while still communicating the emotional truth.
Or, y’know, Ben Affleck is a damned liar. Your pick. But either way, he’s crafted one of the most enjoyable films of 2012. See it.