On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 53 hostages and instigating an international crisis that would play out for more than a year. Six Americans managed to escape the siege and take refuge in the home of a Canadian diplomat in the city.
Argo, an old-school political thriller from director and star Ben Affleck, tells the true story of the daring CIA rescue mission that spirited those hostages out of Iran in the first weeks of the crisis. The details on the escape—so juicy, so unlikely—were never fully revealed until declassified documents surfaced a few years back.
Affleck plays the role of CIA agent Tony Mendez, an "exfiltration" expert whose specialty is getting U.S. citizens out of dangerous spots overseas. The plan Mendez cooks up is a doozy. He'll set up a fake Hollywood production company, fly into Tehran and sneak the hostages out as members of his Canadian film crew.
Mendez must construct a watertight back story, though, because the Iranians are on the lookout for the missing Americans and interrogating everyone. So he recruits two Hollywood filmmakers, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, to assist in approximating an actual production of Argo, a B-movie Star Wars ripoff—complete with offices, advertisements and press coverage.
It's so crazy it just might work. Affleck is very good indeed as Mendez, a guy who's thinking faster than everyone else in the room. Outwardly calm, Affleck keeps a coiled tension just behind his eyes. It's a terrific screen acting performance.
But as good as he is in front of the camera, Affleck deftly executes some moves behind it. Argo is a 1970s-style film in both content and form, and the filmmakers show great faith in their audience. Affleck delivers screenwriter Chris Terrio's hard, intelligent script with no hand-holding and no bullshit. Scenes are taut and efficient; you never hear 20 words when five will do. As a thriller, Argo has moments of almost unbearable tension.
The film's most inspired maneuver, though, is putting Arkin and Goodman together for some very funny counterpoint scenes in Hollywood. These two get big laughs, and I mean really big laughs, as cynical Hollywood professionals every bit the equal of the CIA when it comes to aggressive deception. ("Can you teach someone to be a director in a day?" Goodman is asked. "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.")
The Hollywood scenes are a critical release mechanism as the Tehran scenes ratchet up to red-line intensity. The hostages' escape depends on a dozen dicey things going just right—a shredded photograph, a ringing phone, a telegram from President Jimmy Carter. Affleck skillfully deploys these plot points like countdown timers, and in the final scenes of Argo I was literally on the edge of my seat, leaning forward. I can't remember the last time that's happened.
Throw in ace supporting turns from veterans like Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber and Phillip Baker Hall, and you've got one of the best films of the year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A great escape."