Ben Affleck crafts a nail-biting thriller in 'Argo': movie review

'Argo' stars Alan Arkin and John Goodman give especially strong performances in the strange-but-true story.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros./AP
Ben Affleck (center, standing) stars in 'Argo.'

“Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is actually based on real events instead of being “inspired by” them. On Nov. 4, 1979, at the height of the Iranian revolution, militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostages. Six Americans managed to escape and received refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

To the rescue comes CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez, played by Affleck. He cooks up a scheme to get the Americans out of Iran before they are found out by posing as the producer of a fake Canadian sci-fi movie called “Argo.” The six Americans will accompany him out of Iran posing as members of the Canadian film crew supposedly there to scout locations.

Although the film is essentially a nail-biter, it has a comic core. For example, this cockamamie scheme is predicated on the idea that the Iranian authorities agree their parched rural landscape looks “extraterrestrial.” (It does). The best parts of the film, which was written by Chris Terrio, aren’t set in Iran at all, but in Hollywood. To set up the operation, Mendez first goes there to recruit a schlock producer (Alan Arkin) and a monster makeup artist (John Goodman).

The movieland satire is laid on thick, but it’s also deadly accurate. Schlock has never seemed so patriotic, and Arkin and Goodman have rarely been so good.
Affleck does a creditable job keeping the action moving, although the six hostages aren’t sufficiently fleshed out and he goes in for too many overly engineered last-minute rescue scenes.

In some ways the movie might have been better if it had been about those two Hollywood guys with only occasional blips from the hostage crisis in Iran. Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” made the sideshow the main show and Hamlet became a supporting player.

It would have been more daring and absurdist if the filmmakers had attempted something like that here. But “Argo” is enjoyable on its own terms, conventional as they are. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and some violent images.)

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