DIRECTED BY Ben Affleck
STARS Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin
How dedicated is director Ben Affleck to capturing 1979 in his splendid new film, the political thriller Argo? He makes sure that the Warner Bros. studio logo that fills the screen at the beginning isn't the glossy WB shield that's instantly recognizable to today's audiences but is instead the old-school W made up of three parallel lines against an oval backdrop. It's a tiny detail — even an irrelevant one — but it demonstrates how thoroughly Affleck has committed himself to his third directorial effort.
Those naysayers who were waiting for the filmmaker to stumble after the one-two punch of Gone Baby Gone and The Town will just have to keep waiting, since Affleck is firing on all cylinders here. Argo is an amazingly proficient film in which great swatches of humor never get in the way of the suspenseful saga at its center. Based on a true story, it relates the smaller drama that was playing off stage next to the main attraction of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, when militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and captured 52 Americans. While this hostage situation was dominating international news, little was known about the plight of six Americans who managed to slip out of the embassy undetected.
As seen in the film, the six find sanctuary in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Knowing that the group will eventually be found and most likely executed, the U.S. government weighs a number of lousy options — for starters, giving the sextet bicycles and asking them to pedal their way out of the country — before reluctantly settling on the one proposed by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck): Head to Iran under the pretense of making a movie, and then bring the stranded Americans back under the guise of various crew members. Mendez heads up the operation himself, but in order to be convincing, he first travels to Hollywood to get expert counseling from two boisterous individuals: John Chambers (John Goodman), an Oscar-winning makeup artist (Planet of the Apes) who also aids the CIA on the side, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a producer who agrees to help promote the fake film but only if the fake film can be a "fake hit" (while Chambers is a real-life figure, Siegel is not). For their movie, the three settle on a screenplay titled Argo, a derivative science fiction flick set in an exotic locale.
Unlike such pandering nonsense as Taken 2 (reviewed here), Argo doesn't traffic in mindless jingoism. While the ingenuity and resourcefulness of America (and Canada, which cosponsored the rescue) takes center stage, the script by Chris Terrio (based on a Wired article by Joshuah Bearman) also takes time to explain how it was this country's interference in foreign affairs that directly led to the hostage crisis. Affleck and Terrio treat the portions involving the stranded embassy workers with the solemnity they deserve, largely leaving the humor for the Hollywood sequences featuring established cutups Arkin and Goodman. Indeed, the only (inadvertent) levity to be found in the Tehran-set sequences involves the dopey 'staches found on the American men — then again, that's just Affleck engaged in period verisimilitude. (Although he jumped ahead with the song selection: The film is set in 1979 and 1980, but The Rolling Stones' "Little T&A" wasn't released until 1981.)
If the movie gains any traction, expect one of its snatches of dialogue to permeate our collective consciousness. I won't reveal it here — it involves the film's title as well as an expletive — but it just might match "I drink your milkshake" as an omniscient Internet meme.