Affleck's 'Argo': Mission Impossible
Glenn Kenny Special to MSN Movies
"Argo" is what they used to call a crackerjack escape thriller. It harks back to the kind of mainstream suspense movie that was a staple of '60s and '70s cinema, when the Cold War made the phrase "Checkpoint Charlie" a part of the lingua franca. The movie is a period piece itself, and its problem area remains a focal point of geopolitical concern today. "Argo" adapts the real-life story of a daring covert operation that rescued six U.S. diplomatic workers who had themselves escaped being taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in late 1979. These six workers had managed to bust out of the embassy only to find themselves hiding out in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to that country.
Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, who's working from a script by Chris Terrio, "Argo" settles in to a CIA conference room and lays out all of the scenarios and cover stories that won't work to get these four men and two women out of the country before Affleck's character, Tony Mendez, finds inspiration in a TV rerun of "Battle for the Planet of the Apes." Noting a desert setting in that picture, Mendez proposes going in and smuggling out the hostages under the pretext that they're a crew for a sci-fi film that's thinking about shooting in Iran. Nobody among Mendez's colleagues, beautifully portrayed by the expert likes of Bryan Cranston and Zeljko Ivanek, actually utters the line "This is so crazy, it might just work," but that's obviously the line of thinking.
The biggest laughs of the movie, which is constantly leavening its suspense element with humor, sometimes of the mordant variety, come when Mendez goes out to Hollywood to solidify his cover story. Working with genial, cynical makeup artist John Chambers and motormouthed, cynical producer Lester Siegel, Mendez learns that what it takes to make it in "the biz" is to fake it expertly. This idea is articulated in more profane terms, but this section of the movie is laced with zingers such as "You can train a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day" and "You're worried about the ayatollah? Try the WGA!" (Lest you be under the impression that this is another movie kind of superficially biting the hand that feeds it, take note that there's a lot of inside-baseball CIA japery, e.g., "Find the White House chief of staff!" "How do I find the White House chief of staff?" "We're a f---ing SPY AGENCY! Find him!")
Lest you be under the impression that this is some kind of full-fledged comedy, the last half of the movie -- in which Mendez has to convince the skeptical hostages that his way is the only way they're going to get out of Iran, and then leads them through a labyrinth of confrontations with various citizens and authorities, all of whom are inclined to look at Westerners with virulent hostility at the very least -- is very rarely funny. Affleck, with an able assist from editor William Goldenberg, intercuts a lot of parallel time footage to nail-biting effect and never puts a foot wrong during the climax. It's sufficiently impressive that the viewer is apt not to notice that, while the movie's prologue provides a fair amount of historical context (some would call it hand-wringing) about how the Iranian people's irritation with the West is arguably justified, once we get to the finale, the entirety of Persia seems to have become a bunch of wild-eyed bearded homicidal maniacs. Movies being moves, that sort of thing happens. But the perhaps inevitable shortcomings of convention notwithstanding, "Argo" is quite a satisfactory impossible mission indeed.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.