One of the kookiest footnotes of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis has been adapted into a feature film by Ben Affleck, who's now batting 1000 as a director with Argo, his third turn at the helm. Having previously directed tightly-wound crime thrillers in his native Boston, (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) Affleck has expanded his canvas with this lively jaunt, based on the real-life mission to rescue six U.S. diplomats who escaped the embassy during the revolution and went into hiding in the Canadian Ambassador's mansion in the suburbs of Tehran.
With the help of a top shelf supporting cast—Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman—Affleck, who also stars, briskly escorts his audience through the tumultuous tail end of 1979, when men in suits still had beards, even in the CIA. Affleck plays an earnest and ingenious CIA agent, Tony Mendez, who takes the lead on the rescue effort. All of the hostages were in Iranian custody except for that handful who successfully fled the embassy during the riot, but they were increasingly at risk of discovery by the Revolutionary Guard. Getting them out seemed impossible, but specialist Mendez came up with a cover story so crazy it just might work.
The unlikely mission, which was largely unknown until it was finally declassified in 1997, was as simple as it was fantastic. Working with the Canadians and friends in Hollywood, Mendez created a fake production company that pretended to produce a stupid Star Wars ripoff called Argo, and "sent" a Canadian "film crew" to Iran to scout locations. In the film, John Goodman and Alan Arkin portray his film industry "associates," bringing a daffy comedic chemistry to the equation. (Asked why he's sitting at home instead of attending an awards show, Arkin's character, a grouchy semi-retired producer, bluntly explains, "I'd rather stay home and count the wrinkles on my dog's balls.")
Savoring the cinematic style of the late '70s, Affleck strikes a pleasant balance between suspense and humor with Argo. The film immerses viewers in the chaos of the Iranian revolution with simple gestures—bodies hanging from construction cranes, bearded men in military fatigues dragging prisoners away at checkpoints. This milieu is artfully juxtaposed with tight scenes of inter-agency squabbling back at CIA headquarters (where Cranston tries to keep the mission from falling apart) and scenes in sunny California, where Goodman and Arkin trade one-liners with signature zeal.
As often happens with Hollywood films based on true stories, the suspenseful third act climax comes off as a tad contrived, and the last 10 minutes devolve into a forced attempt to wrap up undeveloped loose ends. (Remember Mendez's son? Maybe, but who cares?) But up until then Argo is a surprisingly engaging study of an extremely tense moment in American history—and one that could have gone very differently for the jittery Americans counting on a fake Hollywood movie to save them. And luckily for moviegoers, the real Argo's no Gigli.
(Argo opens on October 12th. Thanks to Thrillist and Nitehawk Cinema for inviting us to last week's preview screening.)