Quick hit: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts an unlikely scheme to rescue six Americans stranded in Iran in the midst of the 1979 hostage crisis. In Argo, which opened Friday, Affleck adapts a true story that somehow roped in Hollywood. The actor/director continues to show a deft hand behind the camera, spinning out an increasingly tense tale while Alan Arkin and John Goodman inject needed humor. He also casts himself well as the weary but determined Mendez.
Some stories are just too bizarre for fiction. If a writer pitched them, he would be laughed out of the room.
Take the tale of the cheerleader’s mom who tried to off a rival cheerleader’s mom. Or the astronaut so obsessed with one of her colleagues she drove cross country wearing a diaper to confront his alleged girlfriend.
Or for that matter, the story of a CIA agent who faked a movie production as cover to gain entry to a hostile country.
Yes, indeed, these things all did happen. The latter story, however, is the subject of director/star Ben Affleck’s latest film, the taut Argo.
The U.S., in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, finds that six embassy employees escaped the takeover and are being sheltered by the Canadian ambassador. As Washington intelligence officials clash with the State Department and the White House, the Iranians who stormed the embassy creep closer to discovering the missing Americans.
Their survival falls on the shoulders of Affleck’s world-weary agent, Tony Mendez, first tasked with vetting the lame rescue plans put forth by the diplomatic corps, then assembling the “cast” to make his fake production, Argo, a Star Wars-ripoff, seem real to the unsuspecting Iranian government.
If you respect good but lesser-known actors, they are littered throughout this thriller, none bearing a great deal of weight, but each adding to the whole, which in addition to having a star director, also has a star producer – one George Clooney.
Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber and Philip Baker Hall stroll through, but Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who make fun of Hollywood – not the hardest task, we know – make the biggest impressions.
Affleck uses them well, giving Arkin’s aging producer and Goodman’s makeup expert the best lines, allowing them to bring much needed levity to a humorless bunch, the CIA spooks and the imperiled shut-ins they are laboring to free.
If Affleck errs in his direction – he didn’t in Gone Baby Gone – it’s in leaning toward wrapping things up too neatly, a temptation he also gave in to in The Town. But on the way to the tidy ending is a section so tension-filled that if you set aside disbelief, the foregone conclusion to the movie isn’t so unexpected.
We may know the ending, but the audience is placed in the seats of the seven people trying to escape Iran and it’s a jarring place to be, with every hiccup travelers typically encounter – normally temporary inconveniences – transformed into a life-or-death obstacle.
Affleck also casts himself better than the studios ever did. He never fit the hero archetype that Daredevil and Pearl Harbor foisted on him. In his more recent roles, as the troubled actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland, the hood-with-a-heart in The Town and now, the conflicted family man and CIA agent who embarks on Argo’s rescue, he’s found his niche – characters who aren’t good as gold, but aspire to something more honorable.
And if ripped-from-the-headlines movies are your bag, the three-decade-old story gains more relevance as it follows last month’s , and Thursday’s U.S. embassy shooting, in which a Yemeni officer was killed.
Without preaching, Affleck sprinkles appropriate evidence of Iran’s oppressive regime throughout the film and leaves open the question of just how much has changed since the hostage crisis, which ended in 1981.
“Argo” is playing at Poway UltraStar Cinemas.