The propulsive hostage thriller "Argo," the third feature directed by Ben Affleck, just plain works. It's heartening to encounter a film, based on fact but happy to include all sorts of exciting fictions to amp up the suspense, whose entertainment intentions are clear. The execution is clean, sharp and rock-solid. It's as apolitical as a political crisis story set in Iran can get. But "the first rule in any deception operation is to understand who your audience is."
So wrote Antonio J. Mendez, the Central Intelligence Agency operative played in "Argo" by Affleck, in his most recent book dealing with the strange undercover operation dramatized here. Working from a nimble script by first-time feature scribe Chris Terrio (who has a sense of humor to go with a sense of pace), Affleck understands that movies are deception operations, too, and that his potential audience for "Argo" is large and wide, conservative and liberal and centrist.
Prior to "Argo," Affleck directed the Boston-set features "Gone Baby Gone" (2007) and "The Town" (2010), and his strengths are very old-school. Not to pin it on his jaw, but Affleck's directorial approach is what you might call square-jawed. The technique is not subtle or original; his camera always seems most comfortable when framing a sweaty face under duress in chin-to-hairline close-up. But Affleck's approach works; it gets the job done. At a key moment near the end of "Argo," a moment designed expressly for cathartic applause and a swell of relief, you know what happened the other night? The audience applauded.
The real stuff first. In 1979, the year of "Kramer vs. Kramer," 52 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran by Iranian revolutionary factions sympathetic to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Meantime, however, six U.S. State Department officials in the employ of the American Embassy escaped before they could be captured and ended up hiding in the Canadian ambassador's home.
Mendez concocted a plan: Fly into Tehran, posing as a member of a Canadian film crew scouting exotic locations for a "Star Wars" rip-off titled "Argo." Then fly out again, this time with the six Americans playing the roles of his Hollywood colleagues. In preparation, Mendez worked with Hollywood makeup artist (and longtime CIA contractor) John Chambers, played by John Goodman, in setting up phony offices for use by "Studio Six Productions." The movie in preproduction needed to appear semilegitimate and quasi-plausible. Alan Arkin does wonderful, incrementally sly things with the fictional role of an old-time producer enlisted by Chambers and Mendez to assist in the dodge.
Most of "Argo" sticks with the fortunes of the escaped State Department officials, and once Mendez arrives in Tehran, the debates turn to their chances of surviving such a flagrant ruse. The film begins with noise and chaos, with the Iranian mob storming the embassy. Even when "Argo" is kicking back and taking time for more casual moments among the officials, the tensions (and the close-ups designed for tension) rarely cease. One of the peculiarities of the real-life situation was how the officials' days and nights in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) were made easier by good food and wine. The clock was ticking, however. The Iranians, they believed, knew the six U.S. citizens were hiding somewhere. Affleck, as director, never lets the audience forget it.
Bryan Cranston plays a composite authority figure back in the states, Mendez's overseer. His is a face (you may know it from “Breaking Bad”) that says: I mean what I just said. Damn it. The real-life “Argo” mission, according to Mendez, was risky but went off essentially without a hitch or a hiccup. The movie throws in all sorts of hitches and screw-tightening bits, and by the time maniacal, knife-wielding Iranian thugs are giving chase on the Mehrabad airport runway ... well, even if it seems hoked-up as you're watching it, and it does, it works.
The film's Oscar nominations are presumed to be a sure thing. I do hope that Affleck, behind the camera, can learn the value of letting a shot play out more than four or five seconds. The script of "Argo" works from an extremely efficient outline of story beats and payoffs. It's not rich in portraiture; the State Department officials, all well played (I loved the moment when Kerry Bishe, as Kathy Stafford, lets loose with a laugh near the end), aren't especially well particularized on the page. As Mendez, Affleck's performance comes with a touch of Movie Tough Guydom that pushes "Argo" into familiar territory; a more neutral sort of anonymity might be closer to the real guy. I'm just guessing.
Parts of "Argo" belong strictly to the movies. Other parts, the best parts, have one foot in the movies and the other in a real-life pressure cooker. In the populist vein of Ron Howard's "Apollo 13," Affleck's rouser salutes the Americans (and, more offhandedly, the Canadians) who restored our sense of can-do spirit when we needed it. We get into jams; we get out of them. The movies like those stories, wherever they fall on the fiction/fact measuring stick.