By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
A screenwriter might be laughed out of a movie producer's office after pitching the plot of Argo, if it weren't so audaciously true.
Ben Affleck might still be a celebrity punch line, if he hadn't become one of the finest directors working today — also a foolhardy notion, and also absolutely true.
From these unlikely sources — the story practically nobody knew and the actor tabloids knew too well — springs a terrific movie. Argo is a supremely constructed popcorn flick, a political thriller taut as piano wire and a Hollywood satire funnier than most comedies on the subject.
The story is, as they say, ripped from headlines. In 1979 the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, was overrun by demonstrators protesting the despised, deposed Shah's exile to America. Fifty-two diplomats were taken hostage, a crisis dominating the evening news for 444 days before their release. Another six embassy employees escaped, hiding out with Canadian diplomats until fleeing Iran two months later.
Canada got all the credit while the truth remained classified information, made public years later. The rescue was entirely a CIA operation, with the agency's top "exfiltrator," Tony Mendez, creating a bold cover story for the escapees. They would pose as members of a Canadian movie crew, scouting locations in Iran for a sci-fi epic titled Argo then flying home. Even Hollywood believed the movie was real, and Affleck nimbly shows us why.
Argo works superbly on two levels, first as a white-knuckle re-enactment of events in Iran and scrambling strategies in Washington. The movie is a throwback to political thrillers before brawn trumped brains, signaled before the movie even begins by using the Warner Bros. logo from the Watergate era. The embassy assault is a pulse-quickening sequence, its confusion and fear matched by stateside concerns about what to do next.
Mendez, played stoic and shaggy by Affleck, comes up with the "best worst idea," enlisting Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to lay groundwork for the ruse. Chambers connects Mendez with has-been producer (and composite character) Lester Siegel, a juicy role for Alan Arkin. John and Lester's comical show biz cynicism arrive at just the right time, loosening the noose Affleck tied around our necks.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio zips effortlessly between the diplomats' danger, West Wing maneuvering and the Hollywood sham, in a propulsive narrative making two hours fly by. Affleck is an assured storyteller, displaying even more confidence than in Gone Baby Gone and The Town, never calling attention to who's behind the camera except for one deliciously self-effacing moment.
When John sizes up the diplomats to assign their roles, he points out one who should be the director. Tony wonders if he can teach the guy how to behave like a director with only one day's preparation. "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in one day," John quips, and the camera swiftly cuts to Affleck, as if offering an example. Well, Affleck is much more talented than a monkey, and Argo is certainly one of the best movies of 2012.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.