Early in Ben Affleck’s terrific political thriller Argo, Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) jokes to CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) that even a monkey could learn to be a film director in a single day. That may be more or less true for the kind of movie Chambers and Mendez are pretending to make (a Z-grade science-fiction picture), but Affleck’s own transformation from tabloid target and box-office poison to respected, accomplished director of serious films has been the product of obvious hard work and impressive skill. Affleck’s third film as a director expands his scope beyond the urban Boston setting of his first two efforts (Gone Baby Gone and The Town) and adds real-life resonance to his slick, suspenseful storytelling. It’s the kind of movie that wins Oscars, sure, but it’s also consistently entertaining and socially conscious without being heavy-handed.
The movie begins with an intense and gripping depiction of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, being overrun by protesters in November 1979. Most of the embassy staffers were captured and held hostage, but six Americans escaped the embassy and hid out at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Argo is about the rescue effort to bring those people home, led by Mendez and aided by Chambers and a veteran Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin, playing a composite of several real people), who concocted a fake movie production (the aforementioned Z-grade sci-fi adventure, titled Argo) as cover for the six Americans.
After the heightened tension of the opening sequence, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio step back for some comic relief courtesy of the Hollywood deal-making required to put together a convincing film production to fool the Iranian government, but the movie never strays too far from the harried Americans cooped up inside the ambassador’s house, terrified of being caught and executed as spies. Affleck and Terrio do a great job of generating suspense out of a true story whose outcome is widely known, and the movie’s final act is a nonstop series of white-knuckle moments. Amid that chaos, Affleck makes room for small character moments as well as illustrations of the complex political situation, continually making sure that while Argo is as thrilling as any action movie, those thrills are anything but empty.