Perhaps the biggest surprise in Argo, Ben Affleck's excellent new thriller about a covert rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis, is that it spends its middle stretch in caper comedy mode, whizzing our main character, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), to Los Angeles to meet with some crusty old Hollywood guys to pitch a movie. You see, six foreign service workers escaped the American embassy in Tehran before it was sacked by revolutionaries and are now hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. The Revolutionary Guard is close to figuring out that they're missing six potential hostages, so an evacuation is needed quickly. After tossing out several other equally ridiculous ideas, Mendez suggests disguising the six as a Canadian film crew scouting locations — they'll pretend to look around a bit and then Mendez will get them the hell out of there. This wacky, but real-life, plan requires a convincing backstory, meaning it has to really look like a sci-fi epic called Argo is actually in development, with producers, table reads, posters, storyboards, Variety coverage, etc. Watching Mendez and his film world conspirators, played with their usual weary sparkle by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, put all this nonsense together in service of something very literally lifesaving is a dichotomous delight. That Affleck handles this section with such deft, light footing while creating a larger film that is nerve-rattlingly tense is a major testament to his burgeoning talent as a director.
Filmed with a grainy, wandering camera and awash in earth-tone period detail, Argo, the real Argo, looks and sounds credible while also being a bit of a yarn. With a script by Chris Terrio, adapted from a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman, the film certainly seems to take some creative licenses to ratchet up the tension — were people really so close to not answering a crucial phone call, was the timing of the escape climax really so harrowingly tight — but we believe in its earnest depiction of real-ish events nonetheless. That is because Affleck brings a particular lived-in humanity to the material. These are not flashy people running around performing superhuman stunts and talking tough to the bad guys. Both the stranded six and their quietly noble rescuers, whether chained to a desk at Langley or skulking around Tehran with a muted, saturnine sense of purpose, are regular people in rumpled clothing who are scared, confused, tired, and, again, scared. And the other side of the conflict isn't treated as a featureless horde of rabid monsters, with Affleck and Terrio generously giving us a little briefing on the revolution at the beginning of the film to help explain why these people were as angry, particularly at America, as they were. Argo is a very humane film, both hopeful and despondent about politics and people, and in that way feels urgently relevant to today despite its thirty-year remove.