"Argo" takes you back. Not just to the dark days of the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis but to a brighter, earlier time, when Hollywood regularly turned out smart and engaging films that crackled with energy and purpose.
Very much like Clint Eastwood before him, actor turned actor-director Ben Affleck not only has a passion for those kinds of throwback entertainments, he knows that the only way to get them on the screen effectively is to do the work himself.
After a hesitant start with "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck found his footing with the crackling crime drama "The Town" and now takes things one step further with this breakneck tale of how an ace CIA agent rescued six Americans from the jaws of the Iranian Revolution with a little help from, hard as it may be to believe, the good folks of Hollywood. It's all based on a true story persuasively conveyed — and amplified — in the best classic movie tradition.
Convincingly scripted by debuting screenwriter Chris Terrio from the real-life exploits of retired agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), "Argo" is most impressive in the number of moods its director has casually mastered. Affleck easily orchestrates this complex film with 120 speaking parts as it moves from inside-the-Beltway espionage thriller to inside Hollywood dark comedy to gripping international hostage drama, all without missing a step.
Affleck's abilities start with an instinct for storytelling, for always moving the action forward while never losing track of the need to keep events convincingly realistic. The beautifully textured shots by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the brisk, propulsive editing of William Goldenberg combine to relentlessly advance the plot, with not an ounce of narrative fat getting in the way.
Affleck has made sure that "Argo's" acting is reined in — and that starts with him. He and casting director Lora Kennedy have wisely given the six American hostages roles to talented actors (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe) with not necessarily familiar names or faces.
Even when the film calls for performers with bigger, more recognizable names — Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin and John Goodman, all in top comic form — Affleck's seen to it that their irresistible wise-cracking stays focused and low-key.
Before Affleck's character, Tony Mendez, enters the picture, "Argo" brings us up to speed two times over. First we see a brisk history of Iran, artfully designed by Kyle Cooper of Prologue Pictures with a combination of comic strip imagery and newsreel footage, that fills us in on the 1953 CIA-backed Iranian coup against the Mohammad Mosaddegh regime and the bringing of the Shah to power.
Then we see a compelling, expertly done re-creation of the Nov. 4, 1979, storming of the American Embassy in Tehran and how it was that six Americans were able to escape the building. Collectively known as "the houseguests," they take refuge in the residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).
"Argo's" story begins in earnest 69 days later when Mendez, estranged from his wife and living in bachelor squalor, is summoned by his tart-tongued boss, CIA assistant deputy director Jack O'Donnell (Cranston), to a key meeting.
Mendez is the CIA's top man in exfiltration, an expert at the stealth removal of people from hostile territory, and because the time has come to get those six out of Iran his expertise is sorely needed.
Unhappy with the plans his superiors present, Mendez gets an idea while watching "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" with his young son. He remembers a civilian the CIA has worked with before, Hollywood makeup expert John Chambers (whose real-life credits include Oscar-winning work on the "Apes" series and creating Spock's ears for the original "Star Trek").
From this memory comes the notion of getting the Americans out of Iran by pretending they're a team of Canadians who entered the country to do location scouting for a forthcoming Hollywood movie. As Jack O'Donnell truthfully tells Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton), "This is the best bad idea we have."
The funniest part of "Argo" (named after the fake science-fiction film the Canadians are supposedly scouting for) involves Mendez going to Hollywood to ensure that that make-believe production is real enough to fool the Iranians. John Goodman is wildly funny as Chambers, and Alan Arkin is even funnier as composite character producer Lester Siegel. He gets off one of the film's best inside Hollywood lines when, before a hilarious negotiation with agent Max Klein (Richard Kind), he tells Mendez, "You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA."
Once Mendez arrives in Iran, "Argo" turns serious again, and Affleck as an actor is at his convincing best getting the nervous houseguests to trust him to implement this outlandish scheme. (Affleck the director actually sequestered the six actors for a week to help them get into their roles, and it was worth it).
"Argo" hails from Hollywood, so the movie houseguests endure a whole lot more of all kinds of jeopardy than apparently happened in real life: The closing credit reading "some scenes and dialogue in this film have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes" is putting it mildly.
But because the physical verisimilitude "Argo" creates is so striking, and because Affleck is so good at following the ABC rule (Always Be Cross-cutting), moving back and forth among the houseguests, the Iranians, the bureaucrats in Washington and the Hollywood types, that invention is compelling as well as inevitable. This is no documentary, it's a major studio motion picture, and a heck of a good one at that.
MPAA rating: R, for language and some violent images
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release