Ben Affleck’s third thriller, Argo, is a marvel of cunning, an irresistible blend of cool realism and Hollywood hokum. It opens with a dose of fact, a female narrator’s sober recitation of the U.S. role in the 1953 Iranian coup that installed our best bud, the shah, and the coming of the Shiite revolution and the ayatollah. Noam Chomsky would nod along: It’s solid anti-imperialist stuff. Then comes another view, a blast of what a Newsweek cover labeled “Muslim Rage,” a mob converging on Tehran’s American Embassy to rend Our People limb from limb. Affleck intercuts real footage of the 1979 takeover with expert reenactments. We’re sold: This is how it was.
The events Argo chronicles were classified for years, long enough to give the film a juicy, Now It Can Be Told! vibe. The title comes from an apparently risible Star Wars — knockoff screenplay used as a pretext to get six Americans out of Iran. The group — four men, two women — had slipped from the embassy and hidden in the Canadian ambassador’s basement, and the fear was that if discovered, they wouldn’t be tossed in with the hostages but “die badly and publicly.” Chris Terrio’s script makes much of CIA incompetence, from the agency’s confident prediction that there wouldn’t be a revolution to its pitiful scenarios for the sextet’s escape — among them a 300-mile bicycle trip in winter to the mountains of Turkey. Then CIA maverick Antonio Mendez (Affleck) catches a bit of a Planet of the Apes sequel on TV and hatches a scheme by which the six would leave Iran posing as a film crew on a location scout — what Mendez’s boss (Bryan Cranston in yet another drab movie role) calls “the best bad idea we have.”
What a mix: poker-faced espionage and broad showbiz satire. John Goodman plays (real) makeup whiz John Chambers (he did the Apes pictures), who brings Mendez to (fictional) producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a has-been with a yen to make headlines in Variety again. Goodman is a hoot, and Arkin knows the right speed (fast) for Siegel’s Hollywood-bubble-creature patter.
Arkin and Goodman have the only colorful parts, though. Affleck likes to cast himself in immodestly sized leads but is careful not to be caught showboating. He and Terrio don’t use the fugitives to tug on our heartstrings. Swilling red wine out of nice goblets, they’re not, collectively, an attractive bunch, although it’s nice to see Clea Duvall onscreen again. The credits show the actors side by side with their look-alike real-life counterparts, communicating the idea that (a) the filmmakers have taken zero liberties, and (b) the seventies was history’s worst hair decade.
But a docudrama Argo isn’t. In the climax, Affleck has us in the oldest of Hollywood’s vises. As the Americans make their undercover way to the plane that will carry them to safety, the Iranians gradually learn they’ve been hoodwinked and roar off in pursuit — some of us (I’m guilty) leaning forward in our chairs and chanting, “Go. Go. Go. Gogogogogogogogogogogo. For fuck’s sake, go!!!!!!!!!” The actual escape was nothing like that, but how much reality can we be expected to take? Studios can do business with a director who has such a potent combination of seriousness and shamelessness.
This review previously ran in the October 15 issue of New York Magazine.