"Argo" is, hands down, one of the best films to arrive in a while and will surely collect a Best Picture nomination come Oscar time. It's a comic-espionage-dramatic-thriller all rolled into one and skillfully crafted. Ben Affleck has now proven himself a worthy contender as a director, making this his third slam dunk in the behind-the-camera department (the other two were "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town").
Based on fact, with some fiction thrown in for Hollywood sake, the nuts and bolts of the story are this: It's 1979 and President Jimmy Carter is in the White House. On Nov. 4 of that year, militant student followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran taking 52 hostages. The students were enraged that the deposed Shah had been allowed to enter the United States for medical treatment. During the melee, six U.S. State Department workers slipped out of a back door and end up finding safe haven at Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor's house, but it is only a matter of time before they will be discovered, putting themselves, the ambassador and his staff at risk.
"Carter is (expletive) enough bricks to build the pyramids," a Central Intelligence Agency staffer tells Tony Mendez, an "exfiltration" specialist who has a reputation for his ability to get hostages out of highly volatile situations. Mendez is called upon to come up with a plan to help get the six Americans safely out of the country. At a CIA staff meeting, ideas are being batted around that include having the Americans pose as teachers, as crop inspectors, as visitors to Iran, but all of the plans seem to have a loose end that could end up in disaster. "If these people die, they die badly," Mendez's boss, Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) reminds his subordinates.
Mendez gets an idea while watching a movie on television with his son (it's the "Battle for the Planet of the Apes"). What if he disguises the Americans as a Canadian film crew scouting a location for a sci-fi movie that needs an exotic setting? After some haggling here and there, Mendez gets the green light from the White House for his rescue because "it's the best bad idea" the CIA has.
John Goodman plays Hollywood make-up man John Chambers, a friend of Mendez's, who also happens to be a contractor for the CIA. He has the connections in Hollywood to get the fake movie headed into production. They enlist a Hollywood producer (the fictional part of the real life story) named Lester Siegel, who is itching to make his last picture leave an impression. "If I'm going to make a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit," says Siegel, played by Alan Arkin, who makes Siegel a character you end up wishing was in every scene. He's just that good.
Debuting screenwriter Chris Terrio cobbled together the script based on a "Wired" article by Joshuah Bearman and a chapter from Mendez's memoir. The story moves along at a clip with never a break in the action.
Affleck as actor plays Mendez as understated, which is the right choice. This is a movie driven by plot, with characters there to move the action along. The actors playing the six American hostages (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishe) heighten the tension, especially in scenes where they are placed in situations where any minute their identities might be revealed. Affleck as director wanted the ensemble to experience their roles on a deep level, so he sequestered them in a home, dressed in their '70s garb for a week. It seems to have worked. Affleck also captures the feel of 1970s political thrillers -- "Argo's" race-the-clock pacing recalls the 1976 film "Network."
"Argo" (the title is the name of the awful sci-fi screenplay they select for their fake movie) is one of those must-see movies, and don't wait until it comes out on DVD. Seeing it on a big screen creates an edge-of-your-seat thrill that you won't experience in a home recliner. And that's a fact.