The quiet retrieverMovies
Reviewer's rating: 7/10
In his exceedingly good period thriller, Ben Affleck plays Antonio ''Tony'' Mendez, a CIA operations officer who specialises in exfiltration, which means he's skilled in the art of covert escape. Affleck knows a thing or two about exfiltration himself, having escaped his former career as a failing leading man and tabloid-magazine plus-one to Jennifer Lopez a decade ago to remake himself as a credible filmmaker.
Argo, in which he also has the lead role among a large and talented ensemble cast, is Affleck's third film as director, following the Boston double bill of 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town. It is his cleanest, most engrossing work to date and not only duplicates the look of the late 1970s but also recalls the movies from that era - such as Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men and Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor - with its grainy aesthetic and official subterfuge.
The story keeps you off balance by working in history's margins. The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which young militants in the service of that country's new revolutionary Islamic government stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took hostages, is well known, but Argo focuses on six American staffers who slipped away that day and holed up in the house of the Canadian ambassador without papers or protection.
It is an era of American impotence and Mendez, along with his boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), feels compelled to take the mission because every other rescue idea advanced looks likely to end with the half-dozen being summarily executed. His own brief sounds even more ludicrous: fly to Tehran as a Canadian film producer searching for locations for a film and then brazenly fly out with the escapees posing as the department heads of the film crew.
Movies about fake Hollywood productions or the co-opting of movie-industry talent for ulterior motives, such as Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, generally use the scenario to satirise the insular Los Angeles mindset, and Argo is no different. ''If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit,'' veteran producer Lester Siegel (a razor-sharp Alan Arkin) tells Mendez, and there are some amusing gibes as the production of the titular sci-fi epic (it's the era of Star Wars) is publicly launched to provide viable cover.
But the Hollywood gags, which are contrasted with the increasing tension inside the overcrowded Canadian residence and the violence in the streets outside, don't obstruct the valuable contribution of Siegel or veteran creature designer John Chambers (John Goodman). Affleck's thriller is a broad church, in which a range of unlikely people work together and it's not just the steely, all-action spooks that swing into action. Once in Tehran, Mendez does little except talk. His skill is making people believe him and that goes equally for border guards and his increasingly flustered charges. Mendez is essentially an actor and his style is to be quiet and convincing. Affleck's own performance obviously mirrors that, but it's a touch recessive and he doesn't quite have the skill to silently communicate his character's interior state.
Mendez is separated from his wife and son, and the film shoehorns a scene in which he and Siegel discuss parenthood to emphasise how putting the professional before the personal is necessary but damaging. However, once the bogus production team venture onto the chaotic streets to establish their bona fides, the film ratchets up the tension. Each step is a test that Affleck takes to the verge of disaster, and that extends to a malfunctioning support structure in Washington.
A bad thriller can be picked apart while you're watching the picture, a good one after you've watched the picture; Argo is the latter. It helps that post-revolutionary Iran is in a state of flux, but it's to Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio's credit that the movie has a series of grace notes, such as not abandoning a crucial Iranian character the moment she's no longer around the Americans.
As a director, Affleck gets a lot of small, telling elements right. Argo doesn't have the moral ambiguity of Gone Baby Gone, or The Town's deadly sense of community, but it's strong in execution, gripping and enjoyable. What's more, it's a welcome surprise because this kind of mid-level entertainment is an exception to most mainstream American fare.
At some point Hollywood's border guards let such crowd-pleasing dramas exfiltrate the industry, and right now Affleck has the field to himself.
Rated M, 120 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston