In 1980, Studio Six Productions ramped up its PR machine to spread the word about its latest film project, Argo—a sci-fi “cosmic conflagration” with a (non)human interest story, to be shot in the Middle East. How in the world was anyone able to raise money for a film with such a hopeless concept? Well, let's just say that Argo had a powerful backer: the CIA.
Based on real-life events described in former CIA agent Antonio “Tony” Mendes's book The Master of Disguise and a 2007 Wired Magazine article, director Ben Affleck’s Argo tells the improbable true story of the eponymous sci-fi flick used as a cover for a covert CIA operation during the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. Argo is about six American embassy staff members who managed to escape from the main compound before it was hijacked, and who sought refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s house.
Argo recounts the scheme invented by Mendes, a crack CIA “exfiltration” expert (Ben Affleck), to rescue the embassy workers before the Iranians discover they are missing. Mendes endeavors to create a solid backstory for the sci-fi film, enlisting the help of the makeup artist from Planet of the Apes John Chambers (John Goodman)—whom Mendes finds squandering his talents on the set of a “minotaur monster movie”—and straight-talking street-smart director Lester Siegel (a fictional character played by Alan Arkin).
Affleck’s decision to self-cast as the soft-spoken, understated spy is questionable, though he gives it a valiant go, dutifully slumping his shoulders and wearing a decidedly un-Hollywood corduroy blazer and beard. The chameleonic Bryan Cranston (Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) gives a fine if limited performance as Jack O’Donnell, Mendes’s boss at the CIA. Meanwhile, Hollywood serves as a counterpoint to the gritty mess unfolding in Iran, as Arkin and Goodman sling winning one-liners like clockwork (“You're worried about the Ayatollah? Try the [Writers Guild of America]!”), adding a pleasant streak of levity to the otherwise tension-filled tale.
Argo, Affleck's third feature film as a director (he also co-wrote and co-produced), is more accomplished than Gone Baby Gone (07) and The Town (10), although it lacks the latter’s visual polish. Working with DP Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution), Affleck has dropped his reliance on extreme close-ups of faces, expository voiceovers, and unmotivated overhead shots taken from helicopters, instead opting for a two or three shot in medium focus for conversations that would have been given perfunctory shot-counter-shot treatment in his first two films.
This shift jibes with what appears to be a broader development, which is that Affleck is learning to fill the frame with more visual information and to trust the audience to be able to process it. In the same vein, Argo's suspenseful moments—ringing telephones (will they answer?), surging mobs (will they attack?), and incredulous Iranian officials (will they sniff out a ruse?)—all take place in real narrative time, without Pavlovian slow-motion or obvious foreshadowing music.
Affleck also seems to have sworn off shaky handheld camerawork, but he kept the cameramen on their toes by having the actors spontaneously improvise previously rehearsed scenes. The improvisatory approach clearly works better for the cameramen than for the actors, though, as some of Argo’s most visually engrossing sequences are also marked by awkwardly delivered lines. Appropriate for a thriller, Argo has considerable forward momentum, thanks to propulsive cutting that also sometimes gives the film a lurching quality.
Although far from an exhaustive exploration of the Iran hostage crisis, Argo presents a somewhat nuanced narrative of the U.S.-Iran relationship in a Hollywood vernacular. Affleck is still building up his chops as a director, but the intelligence and ambition he brings to filmmaking are particularly apparent in Argo.