As tensions between the United States and Iran come to a frothy boil in the present day over the Iranian nuclear program, Argo places viewers into a metaphorical time capsule and brings them back to a time when the political pot was bubbling over.

And just what are the ingredients in this pot of anti-American stew? The recipe is brilliantly demonstrated from the get-go in Argo, an edge-of-your-seat thriller based on a daring and unthinkable, yet little-known, American rescue operation in the throes of the Iran hostage crisis. Comic-strip imagery and authentic newsreel footage depicting the violent streets of Tehran are accompanied by a voice-over narrative detailing a brief Iranian history, from the CIA-backed coup bringing the Shah to power in 1953 to the present day in 1979. When the camera opens on a burning American flag and a throng of Iranian citizens protesting outside the gates of the American Embassy the morning of Nov. 4, the country appears on the verge of exploding in unified hatred for the U.S. Cross-cutting between the mayhem in the streets and the frantic scene inside the embassy, as employees shred and burn any documentation in sight, has the desired effect: We know the Americans are in trouble.

The rest, as they say, is history, as Iranians proceed to storm the embassy and hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. A group of six Americans, however, is able to sneak away undetected and find refuge at the residence of the Canadian ambassador, seemingly unreachable by even the best U.S. operatives and working against a clock ticking away to their capture and probable assassinations.

Cue Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck, also the film’s director), a CIA exfiltration specialist called upon to deliver the six Americans from the gears of the Iranian revolutionary machine using his uncanny skill in rescuing people from hostile territory. He deftly shows us that he’s the right man for the job, as he roots out the flaws in every plan put forward by CIA head honchos in a meeting focused on the best way to return the expats safely to U.S. soil. When Mendez pitches the ridiculous-yet-plausible cover story of the six Americans posing as a Canadian film crew (everyone loves Canadians, after all — even Iranians) in order to ferry them out of harm’s way, it’s the icing on the cake.

The cover story is given the green light, and it’s off to Hollywood, where Mendez enlists the help of seasoned movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist and CIA collaborator John Chambers (John Goodman) to give an air of credibility to the bogus film — an eponymous science-fiction flick called Argo. The story that unfolds is a mixture of heart-pounding action and light-hearted comedy, as scenes depicting the goings-on of Hollywood movie productions are interspersed with increasingly tense scenes of the execution of the operation in Iran. The visuals help transmit that tension to the audience, through constricting shots displaying cramped U.S. Embassy offices, tight quarters in the Canadian ambassador’s house, and plenty of billowing cigarette smoke to fill any empty space; combined with excellent editing that cuts between the action in Hollywood, Tehran and CIA headquarters at the movie’s climax with sweat-inducing precision, audiences will emerge from the theater feeling as if they were just plucked from a pressure cooker.

The main goal of any motion picture is to entertain, and Affleck succeeds with flying colors in Argo by putting together a feel-good film that leaves viewers satisfied long after the projector goes black. But Affleck’s principal accolade may be in letting the story speak for itself. Working from a screenplay written by Chris Terrio and based on the book The Master of Disguise by the real-life Tony Mendez and Joshuah Bearman’s Wired magazine article “The Great Escape,” Affleck doesn’t attempt to upstage the already-incredible tale. As is, it’s a chronicle tailor-made for a blockbuster hit, and to throw overblown theatrics into it would have been foolhardy for any director.

Affleck and casting director Lora Kennedy wisely chose relatively unknown, yet accomplished, actors in the roles of the six stranded Americans (Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Tate Donovan, Kerry Bishé, Rory Cochrane), to achieve the sentiment that these are ordinary Americans in extraordinary circumstances. That’s not to say he didn’t also beef up the cast a little bit, as evidenced by Arkin, Bryan Cranston (playing CIA officer Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss) and Goodman, who maintained their usual charm on the big screen without overpowering the production. And of course there’s Affleck himself as a bearded, slightly grayed Mendez — a bit out of step from the macho, shoot-‘em-up Bostonian in The Town (2010). But he executes the outrageously smart, confident-yet-humble Mendez to a tee, in the no-bombast yet well-acted manner the role requires, and shows he doesn’t need muscles and firepower, just wit and intelligence, to blow away the Iranians. With that said, it’s hard not to wonder how a more polished actor would have performed in the role of Mendez. In The Town, the movie Affleck directed before Argo, he similarly cast himself as the main man (Doug MacRay), leading to speculation that the movie may have been more successful had Jeremy Renner taken the lead instead of portraying supporting character James Coughlin. Seeing as Renner received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Coughlin, these speculations definitely aren’t too far-fetched. Someone with more acting chops (maybe a Brad Pitt type) could have provided more depth to Mendez; better yet, casting a Latino such as Javier Bardem or Benicio del Toro would’ve given the added bonus of a bit more credibility and believability to the character.

While Argo has tension to boot, Arkin, Goodman and Cranston are there to give viewers’ funny bones a few well-timed smacks when they’re being pummeled with unbearable anxiety. The segue from the streets of Tehran and CIA headquarters to Hollywood early on in the film offers a comical and satirical view of the motion picture business, with a jab that the WGA is more frightening than the Ayatollah and a comment that any film with horses is a Western — even if it’s about ancient Greece. Arkin delivers arguably the funniest line of the movie when, during a promotion for the sci-fi flick, he says “Argo f*** yourself!” to an attendee confused by the name of the movie. Character actor Richard Kind even has a cameo part as Hollywood agent Max Klein when taking place in a hilarious negotiation over the Argo script with Siegel, a scene also serving to demonstrate the veteran producer’s expertise. Affleck offers up a few zingers of his own, like when he facetiously says, “Or we can just send training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade” after the proposition that the hostages attempt to bicycle to safety. The comic relief offers a welcome reprieve from the Iranian tumult, and rather than acting as filler comedy that’s present just for the sake of a few laughs, it progresses the plot and is integrated beautifully with the rest of the narrative without feeling forced.

Affleck certainly seems to be coming into his own as a director, and Argo is one more feather in his cap. His comfort level and maturity behind the camera appear to grow with each movie he makes. While The Town and Gone Baby Gone (2007) were both excellent films, this one stood atop the winner’s podium, and indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Affleck is an Oscar contender come year’s end. His meticulous attention to detail is evidenced in Argo through the juxtaposition of actual photographs of the Iran hostage crisis and still shots from the film. In one photo in particular, the film imagery of Iranians climbing the embassy walls to storm the compound is almost an exact replica — showing Affleck’s desire to tell an accurate story and align his narrative closely with historical fact. This isn’t to say the film is without artistic liberties on the part of Affleck, because he did at times embellish scenes for dramatic effect — as Mendez himself will tell you, a car full of gun-wielding Iranians chasing an airplane down the tarmac is a bit of fictional flair. The brief narrative dealing with Mendez’s somewhat damaged family life (he and his wife and son do not live together) was also a bit of clumsy storytelling that ended quite predictably, and didn’t add anything of worth to the film. But overall, Argo chronicles this amazing rescue mission in a smart, cohesive way that sticks mainly to historical record, and shows that Hollywood could after all be more than just glitz and glam, if only this one time.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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