Directed by Ben Affleck. US. 2012. R. 120 min. Warner Bros. 35mm.
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“At one point in “Argo,” a smart, jittery thriller about a freakish and little-known chapter of the Iranian hostage crisis, a Hollywood producer says that history starts as farce and ends up as tragedy. He seems, as someone rightly points out, to have it backward. But as a professional dissembler, he knows better. Because much like the revolutionary shock troops who seized the United States embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, and turned the crisis into gripping political theater watched by the entire world — tune in tomorrow when America goes on trial, with the special guest star the Ayatollah Khomeini — the producer knows that historical events alone don’t cut it. You need lights, camera, action.
Turning history into farce probably wasn’t what Antonio J. Mendez, a Central Intelligence Agency officer, was after when he was tapped to help free six State Department employees stranded in Tehran. While revolutionary forces were overrunning the embassy and taking hostages, including the 52 men and women who were held for 444 days, five Americans fled undetected. Eventually, they made their way to safety, including at the Canadian ambassador’s house, staying hidden (with a sixth escapee) while the C.I.A., the State Department and the president struggled to find a way to ferry them home. Mr. Mendez, a wizard of disguise, came up with the cover story for the six escapees that improbably stuck: They would pose as a Canadian movie crew.
It’s a doozy of a story and so borderline ridiculous that it sounds — ta-da! — like something that could have been cooked up only by Hollywood. Ben Affleck, however, who directed “Argo” from a script by Chris Terrio and cast himself in the pivotal role of Tony Mendez, realized that comedy alone wouldn’t do. American lives, after all, were at stake (a situation that contemporary viewers will be all too familiar with), and so, after opening the movie with a bit of history and archival imagery, he rushes into the moment’s jarring, unsettling craziness with a cinematic whoosh. Fast and faster, he sets the skittish stage with convincing you-are-there re-creations and then jumps back and forth between the chanting, exultant Iranian protesters outside the embassy and the freaked-out Americans inside it.
Mr. Affleck, working from Mr. Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise,” and a 2007 Wired magazine article, “The Great Escape,” by the journalist Joshuah Bearman, embellishes the official story without eviscerating it. Given how great the very premise is, it makes sense to stick more or less to the official record — a series of photographs from the hostage crisis that is juxtaposed with stills from the movie show how close Mr. Affleck hews to the evidence — and he and his production team clearly had fun with the Chia Pet facial hair, oversize glasses, wide collars, fat ties and earth-toned threads. Shrewdly, he visually transmits the escalating claustrophobia of the escapees’ confinement with billowing cigarette smoke, small rooms, a limited palette and shallow depth of field.
Better yet, after setting your pulse racing, he smoothly downshifts, easing from the high anxiety of the opener — which evokes 1970s political thrillers like Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” — into something looser, mellower and funny. After Mendez spitballs escape plans with his bosses (including an amusing Bryan Cranston, popping neck tendons), he receives the green light to go Hollywood. To make the movie idea work, he flies to Los Angeles, where he brings in an old colleague, John Chambers (John Goodman, breezy and reined in), a real makeup artist who received an honorary Oscar for “Planet of the Apes.” Next on board is a dyspeptically seasoned producer, Lester Siegel (a wonderful Alan Arkin), who helps make the fake project, now a science-fiction flick called “Argo,” look legit.
The Hollywood angle brings lightness and levity into the movie, serving as comic relief that Mr. Affleck uses contrapuntally with the increasingly tense, perilous situation in Tehran. The scenes of Mendez swanning through Los Angeles, across a rooftop party at the Beverly Hilton and a studio lot, where Chambers and Siegel set up shop, are enjoyably preposterous. Then again, as the Hollywood veterans knowingly observe, there is a certain kinship between the spectacle they’re putting on and the really big show the Iranian revolutionaries have staged. Budget aside, it comes down to selling the story and the roles persuasively, which the escapees — nicely played by Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé — soon learn.
Mr. Affleck handles his own roles, on camera and behind it, with a noticeable lack of self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t show off with his direction or the performances, going for detail instead of bombast with eerie silences, traded glances, trembling gestures and beaded sweat. (It’s a good guess that he’s committed the unnerving opening of “Three Days of the Condor” to memory.) His own delivery can be so tamped down that he sometimes registers as overly restrained, almost bland, yet his control serves the material, partly because it would have been a mistake for him to try to upstage this story, much less Mr. Goodman and Mr. Arkin. And then, in the end, this is a story about outwitting rather than killing the enemy, making it a homage to actual intelligence and an example of the same.” (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times)
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