Almost exactly eight months after The Duke galloped off to the big ol’ ranch in the sky, a real-life John Wayne anonymously burst upon the scene to ride to the rescue of six helpless Americans besieged by a seemingly insurmountable enemy.
But instead of guns and fists, Tony Mendez relied merely on his cunning – and a dash of Hollywood magic – to save the day. And what a day Jan. 27, 1980, proved to be. For that’s the one and only date when the U.S. managed to gain the upper hand in the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis, a calamity that brought down a presidency and lit a match to an anti-American conflagration that culminated 21 years later on 9/11.
Ever since Mendez’s mission was declassified in 1997, it’s evolved into a Beltway legend just itching for a visionary filmmaker like Ben Affleck to scratch. And, boy, does he satisfy that urge by molding “Argo,” his third directorial effort, into a rousing comedic thriller in which hubris and resourcefulness meld into one. It seizes you from the start, opening with a brief, informative history lesson for the young’uns, and continues to grip you, right up until the final five minutes, when Affleck unnecessarily adds about six-too-many endings, tying up loose ends best left undone.
It’s a slight misstep that barely detracts from a superior effort in which Affleck seldom fails to maintain suspense, even though you know exactly how the story ends. In that vein, it’s very much like Ron Howard’s equally thrilling “Apollo 13,” albeit with a far more humorous bent that’s perfectly in keeping with Marx (Karl, not Groucho) and his theory on how tragedy and farce relate to history. Chris Terrio even works that Marxism into a script culled from a combination of Mendez’s memoir and a Wired magazine article titled “The Great Escape.” Indeed, it was some escape, largely masterminded by Mendez, a CIA operative whose keen mind was complemented by a John Wayne-like tenacity to selflessly perform the most daring of deeds. And they don’t get more dangerous than what he pulled off that winter in Tehran, risking life and limb to “exfiltrate” six Americans who managed to escape from the U.S. Embassy when it was stormed by student protesters on Nov. 4, 1979.
With no means to get out of Iran, the six took refuge with nearby Canadian diplomats, hiding out in their homes, often in concealed spaces, reminiscent of the Franks’ living conditions during World War II.
And there they stayed for nearly three months, until the rebels finally caught wind of their existence. With time now at a premium, Mendez and his fellow spooks rush to devise exit strategies. Everything from bike rides to peace missions are floated. But the idea that catches fire is Mendez’s suggestion that the six Americans masquerade as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Tehran.
Page 2 of 2 - The fun starts as soon as Mendez, solidly portrayed by Affleck from behind a thick beard and a horrendous 1970s hairstyle, lands in Hollywood, recruiting everyone from Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers (a sparkling John Goodman) to a big-shot producer, represented here by the fictitious Lester Siegel (a cocky Alan Arkin), to set up a real “fake studio” called Group 6, that’s beginning preproduction on a sci-fi project titled “Argo.”
Tinseltown, of course, is where Affleck feels most at home, wasting not a single chance to poke fun at the land of pretension and illusion, before seamlessly letting the thrills kick in during an intense third act, which, predictably, evolves into a frantic race against the clock. It’s clichéd as hell, but it’s a tribute to Affleck that he keeps you glued to your seat.
Aiding him in that quest are Bryan Cranston, making every line of droll dialogue snap as Mendez’s superior, and fellow Emmy winner Kyle Chandler, nicely transforming into President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan. Less satisfying are the actors playing the six American refugees. But then they aren’t given much to work with, their characters pretty much reduced to types: the married couple, the agri-scientist, the doubting Thomas, etc.
In essence, they’re just the McGuffins in a Hitchcockian thriller in which skullduggery and treachery are at the forefront, along with something we don’t often consider anymore: American ingenuity. And no one knows the meaning of that word better than Affleck, who, like Clint Eastwood before him, has fully transformed himself from mediocre actor to talented director on the strength of hits like “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.”
Both of those dramas were set in his Boston backyard, which makes his achievement with “Argo” all the more noteworthy, as he proves that not only can he handle a film outside his comfort zone, but also one that’s huge in size (more than 120 speaking parts). Even more revelatory is Affleck’s acting.
It’s easily the finest of his checkered career, brimming with nuance and style, which is terrific for Affleck the director, because Affleck the actor is in practically every scene. It’s unlikely to win the latter an Oscar, but it could well help score one for his director.