Your average, conventional thriller probably wouldn't build its big climactic set-piece around a bunch of people waiting in line at the airport trying to catch a plane, but then Argo most certainly isn't your average, conventional thriller. Instead, Ben Affleck's third feature film as a director is a loving throwback to the political procedurals of the '70s -- think films like All the President's Men and Three Days of the Condor -- where the "action," such as it is, chiefly involves government (or government-adjacent) guys in suits talking, scheming and plotting instead of running around firing off their guns. In fact, the film's central hero, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck, handing himself the starring role as he did in The Town two years ago) never wields a firearm once during the course of the movie, even when he's in the most desperate of circumstances. He's on a mission where stealth matters more than a show of action movie strength.
As its ads proudly trumpet, Argo is based on an actual CIA operation, the details of which were tucked away tight in the Agency's archives until President Clinton declassified the files that contained this yarn in the 1990s. (Journalist Joshuah Bearman published a lengthy article about the case in a 2007 issue of Wired, which largely serves as the basis for the movie.) And what a yarn it is: following the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in the midst of the 1979 Iranian revolution, six consular officers slipped out of the building and sought refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (played here by proud Canuck Victor Garber), where they remained hidden for more than 60 days. As the hostage crisis at the embassy intensified, though, their position became increasingly untenable and -- unless they were spirited out of the country quickly -- they would likely be found and executed. Various escape plans were tossed around in the backrooms of Washington D.C., but it was Mendez, the Agency's resident "exfiltration" expert, that dreamed up the unlikely plot that his bosses wound up greenlighting.
Seizing on the popularity of sci-fi blockbusters like Star Wars, Mendez proposed going undercover as the representative for a fake Canadian-backed outer space cinematic adventure that hoped to shoot key sequences in Iran. The six housebound diplomats would pose as part of his crew, joining him on his two-day scouting mission and then board a commercial flight for home. To increase the authenticity of this completely invented movie, Mendez traveled to Hollywood and enlisted the aid of a veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and an experienced make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman). He also found the perfect script to option: Argo, a grand space opera set in a galaxy far, far away. With his cover in place, he boards a plane for Tehran and heads straight to the ambassador's home, where he presents the six men and women inside with their new identities and welcomes them aboard the greatest sci-fi epic never made.
Since moving into the director's chair with 2007's Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has shown that he has the aptitude to be a solid studio filmmaker, one whose skill for working with actors and establishing a consistent tone makes up for other shortcomings in the material. But Argo adds a key element that has eluded him so far: a great script, penned by relative newcomer Chris Terrio. Based on the rhythm and cadence of the dialogue, it's clear that Terrio has spent as much time studying those beloved '70s thrillers as Affleck. It's increasingly rare to see this level of smart verbal volleying in a studio feature not written by Aaron Sorkin, and you can tell just how pleased the ensemble cast (which includes Bryan Cranston as Affleck's boss, Kyle Chandler as Jimmy Carter's Chief of Staff, and Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane and Christopher Denham as the six diplomats in need of rescue) is to be mouthing these lines. This is a textbook example of a film where everyone involved in the production -- from the actors to the director to the composer -- made it their mission to serve the script first and foremost. And when the screenplay is this good, that approach makes complete sense.
On the other hand, a director with a more dynamic visual range than Affleck (think Steven Soderbergh or Paul Greengrass) would probably have conceived of a way to both serve the script and inject more style into the movie. Affleck's direction is entirely serviceable (as is his performance; maybe he should start following George Clooney's example and assign himself the second banana role as he consistently gets better work out of the other actors than he does from himself), but it's also lacking a certain texture and nuance that's present in the movies he idolizes and is striving to imitate. As closely as he tries to recreate 1979-era Iran (he even runs still frames from the movie alongside archival news photographs over the closing credits to drive home the verisimilitude), the illusion is never completely immersive, with too many scenes feeling as though they were filmed in a studio back lot. There's also a lack of precision to the way certain scenes unfold, particularly in the big airport climax, where Affleck repeatedly cuts back and forth between Tehran and Washington as Tony tries to get his charges on that plane, butting up against numerous obstacles in the process. It's a tense, exciting sequence (you should have heard the applause that erupted in my theater after the big payoff), but it also plays fast and loose with time and space in way that's occasionally frustrating, even as you're sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to find out if they make it home or not. (Don't worry, no spoilers here -- for that you'll have to go to Wikipedia.) Is Argo the best movie it could possibly be? No, but what it is is still pretty damn great.
Think you've got game? Prove it! Check out Games Without Pity, our new area featuring trivia, puzzle, card, strategy, action and word games -- all free to play and guaranteed to help pass the time until your next show starts.