The year is 1979, and Iran is in a state of crisis. The Shah has been ousted as supreme ruler by Ayatollah Khomeini, and The US Embassy in Tehran is about to be overrun. During the fall of the embassy, a group of six plucky Americans escape to the streets, mercifully taken in by the Canadian Ambassador. Still, they're in serious peril, as outside the walls of the embassy they are extremely vulnerable to rogue Iranian elements seeking revenge for The Shah's U.S. asylum. Oddly enough, the group of six is in more immediate danger than the 65 "official" captives, because any Americans found outside the embassy are far more likely to face harsh repercussions.
Now then, if you're The American government, how exactly do you get those embassy workers to safety without embarking on a potentially lethal political disaster?
Enter Ben Affleck as a C.I.A agent Tony Mendez, an expert in exfil (exfiltration) planning. The State Department has recommended a highly terrible and hokey plan involving bicycles ... which Tony immediately pokes a dozen holes in. Given cycling won't work, Tony is put to the task of forming his own plan. The burdens of competence!
What's he come up with?
Stage a fake movie, say the hostages are a film crew, and head to the airport and try to bluff the Iranian security apparatus. None of it is ideal, but time is running short, as Iran is on the verge of becoming aware of the missing embassy workers. Everyone, from the Canadian Ambassador, to the C.I.A., to the gang of six must attempt to make the best of an extremely bad situation. Hanging over the entire enterprise are a murderer's row of troubling issues. Will anyone believe they are a real film crew? Will the Iranians find them before they can even attempt an escape? Can they possibly pose as a film crew given their extremely limited knowledge of film production? These are the issues that propel "Argo" through its nearly two-hour running time, accomplishing taut pacing, all the while executing clever in-jokes. "Argo" is big Hollywood film making at its very best, full of bravado, yet smooth, and with a few subtle winks at the larger issues of the day.
"Argo" is also Ben Affleck's third turn as a feature film director, and we see him in complete control of his game here. Though there are slight length issues, and definite veracity concerns (read the whole story if you want spoilers) "Argo" features impressive narrative tension throughout. Though there is little to no character exposition, you're immediately drawn into the story, if only because the stakes are life and death.
The acting is also dynamic and compelling. John Goodman and Alan Arkin have limited roles in "Argo" as the C.I.A.'s Hollywood connections, and both are excellent. The always solid Philip Baker Hall is again stalwart here, and Bryan Cranston brings emotional heft and gravitas as Tony's boss.
"Argo" also does well to provide context. Not all Iranians are bloodthirsty hostage-takers, and not all Americans are completely sensible patriots. Quite a few asides and turns are taken comparing the secular pop culture world against the political and religious arenas. The idea of riotous mob justice is considered, from all sides, as is the culturally seeping nature of the Hollywood media empire at large.
"Argo" is definitely worth seeing in theaters, maintaining a serious "Spy Game" meets "The Kingdom" vibe of fast-paced drama. It's a film that picks up steam throughout, and it ends like a freight train. Kudos to Ben Affleck, actor and director, for delivering a vital and thrilling political actioner.