Equally a slick political thriller, intelligent period piece and sly Hollywood satire, Ben Affleck's "Argo" maintains a careful balance between commentary and entertainment value. Stepping beyond the raw thriller qualities that distinguished his first two directing efforts, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," the actor-director successfully broadens those skills with a historical scope. This tense and frequently amusing reenactment of a covert 1979 CIA operation to smuggle assailed American political operatives out of Iran amid revolutionary chaos by disguising them as a film crew takes the material seriously while still having fun with it.
That's not to say that "Argo" breaks any new ground. As the story breathlessly shifts between CIA headquarters, the Canadian embassy in Iran where the Americans take refuge, and Hollywood studios where the CIA finds a pair of an unlikely allies to carry their scheme, characters often speak with the gruff cadences of Aaron Sorkin archetypes all too eager to please. The plight of the hostages isn't nearly as engaging as the attempts by CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, in an impressively muted turn, buried under shoulder-length hair and a scrappy beard) to convince his colleagues the trick will work. Alexandre Desplat's thundering score sometimes overplays the drama. However, "Argo" navigates these familiar qualities through a nice calibration of performances and breezy pace that pulls you along with the increasingly risky stakes.
A more optimistic take on the power of Hollywood to orchestrate a media spectacle than Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog," Affleck's tale shifts from brooding espionage to amusing farce when Mendez heads west to hire acclaimed makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and cigar-chomping producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to flesh out the plan. An amusing pair from their initial screen moments to their last, Goodman and Arkin steal the show with their no-nonsense approach to an absurd proposition — as well as the invective they use to communicate ("Argo fuck yourself" becomes their shared mantra).
Selecting the titular sci-fi screenplay for its Middle Eastern setting, the duo work closely with Mendez to create a production detailed enough to fool Iranian authorities. For the giddy middle section, the narrative shifts from the overseas turmoil in favor of a playful interlude about the machinations of the film industry. "You wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without doing anything?" Chambers asks Mendez. "You'll fit right in."
Chris Terrio's screenplay, which draws from a portion of Antonio J. Mendez's "The Master of Disguise" as well as a Wired magazine article, is loaded with witticisms until the final act, at which point Mendez heads to Iran and presents the six hidden Americans (among them, only a wily Scott McNairy stands out) with their task. When "Argo" turns serious, it starts to drag, in large part because the subjects of the operation (fully aware of the 52 other Americans that didn't escape the embassy and remained in a perilous hostage situation) lack the depth of the cunning Mendez, the focus of our sympathies when he encounters hesitations from the Americans to play along.
Nevertheless, "Argo" regains its appeal as it deepens the portrait of Mendez's commitment to the task — especially as he faces pushback from a supervisor back home (Bryan Cranston, an enjoyably grim and smarmy sidedish to the rest of the plot). As the movie arrives at the inevitable escape attempt, Affleck delivers with a terrifically enacted climax that drew a vocal reaction from the Telluride audience at its first public screening. Other viewers are likely to follow suit.
Content to be a crowdpleaser more than anything else, "Argo" is mainly impressive for the way it generally glides along. Appropriately, its construction bears the mark of calculation only slightly less impressive than the ruse at the center of its plot. Since the actual mission remained largely unknown until it was declassified by the Clinton Administration in the late nineties, the movie taps into a revisionist appeal that provides at least some audiences with the opportunity to celebrate a certifiable Jimmy Carter success story. "The whole country is watching you," Mendez is cautioned. "They just don't know it." Much of the pleasure in "Argo" comes from the power of the movie itself to change that.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its positive reception at Telluride, "Argo" will have its official world premiere in Toronto next week, where distributor Warner Bros. will likely use the buzz to position the movie as a major awards season contender. Its box office performance is likely to be respectable, but even more likely are the promising Oscar campaigns for Affleck as both director and star as well as supporting actor campaigns for Goodman and Arkin.