Ben Affleck's dynamite new film Argo isn't just a tense, impeccably acted thriller, but fulfills some core purpose of Hollywood filmmaking that's practically been forgotten. Filmed on a modest budget, featuring a massive cast of familiar and likable faces, and telling a big story with maximum efficiency and entertainment value, Argo is the kind of serious drama that leaves you smiling because of how marvelously well it pulls everything off. It leaves the daring to the plot itself and allows the crackerjack precision of the story be what blows you away.
Taking the lead role as CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez, Affleck is an all-business type of spy, but brings with him a kind of stoic, inherent likability that's more familiar from his buddy Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. He's charged with staging the rescue of six Americans who escaped the embassy in Tehran, Iran when it was taken over by protesters in 1979, hiding out at the Canadian Ambassador's home. Along with his friend John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood makeup artist, Mendez cooks up a fake movie production based on a sci-fi script called Argo, which they'll use as cover to extract the six Americans from Iran. With a crotchety producer (Alan Arkin) there to give the fake story weight, and a fellow CIA guy (Bryan Cranston) helping sell it to the top brass, the "Argo" plan is sold as "The best bad idea we've got." And it works.
It takes a long time to set up pieces of a plan this elaborate, but Affleck opens the film with a vivid, terrifying depiction of the embassy takeover in Tehran, then segues effortlessly into the comic efforts to set up the fake production of Argo in Hollywood, complete with a table read and women dressed up as intergalactic babes. Chris Terrio's script transitions fluidly from Los Angeles back to Washington D.C. and over to Tehran, where the Americans dubbed the "houseguests" cope with frazzled nerves and the ambassador (Victor Garber) because increasingly concerned that they're putting him at risk. Though the Hollywood scenes contain the biggest laughs (and Arkin gets all the best lines), there's humor included in nearly every scene, building character and adding audience investment into the story until it's time for the tense machinery of the great escape to be set in motion.
The many whirring pieces of the plot click into gorgeous synchronicity as the escape begins, with lots of familiar faces back at the CIA (Chris Messina, Zelijko Ivanek, Titus Welliver) keeping the operation running, the houseguests (among them Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy and Clea DuVall) swallowing their fear, and Mendez at the center of it all keeping a cool head and an implacable stare. Affleck does such a good job of establishing the many dangers in Tehran, from hot-headed guards at the airport to the maid at the Canadian Embassy (Sheila Vand) under pressure to sell out the houseguests, that every step of the escape feels like a minefield, the tension ratcheted up deliciously. The audience I saw the film with spontaneously applauded at one key moment-- if there's better evidence for how expertly a film can play an audience, I don't know it.
Made with brisk confidence and technical precision, Argo is a spy thriller of a buttoned-up old school variety; we're not given a lot of emotional attachments to these characters, and the reward for a job well done is a pat on the back, not an explosion of grateful tears. But Argo is so sure-footed that it picks you up and carries you along with it anyway. If you are a lover of Hollywood movies at their best, the emotional catharsis of Argo isn't what happens onscreen, but the sheer knowledge that the creaky old moviemaking system has put together something this crowd-pleasing and great.