Movie review: 'Argo's' fine performances and taut script result in a compelling tale about '79 Iran embassy siege

In "Argo," a Hollywood insider suggests, "If you want to sell a lie, you get the press to sell it for you."

The Oscar predictions, early word-of-mouth recommendations and audience cheers for "Argo," however, are no lie.

Ben Affleck long ago proved he was no one-hit wonder, and now he's directed a movie about what's been called the most audacious rescue in history -- by the real-life CIA exfiltration expert the actor plays on screen.

The thriller is part history lesson (with a little dramatic license taken), part caper, part comedy and surprisingly suspenseful for a film based on actual events that happened three decades ago.

Don't blame your faulty memory or youthful age if you have little or no knowledge of them. No one knew the whole remarkable story for decades, until President Bill Clinton declassified the operation in 1997, Mr. Mendez wrote a book called "The Master of Disguise" in 2000 and Wired magazine published a piece called "The Great Escape" in 2007.


4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber.
  • Rating: R for language and some violent images.

"Argo" opens on Nov. 4, 1979, as the rage, rhythmic chanting, fist-shaking and protests surge from the Tehran streets into the U.S. embassy like a tsunami. Iranian militants breach the gates, barred windows and doors, and chaos explodes as workers choke incinerators and shredders with classified documents and speculate about help that isn't coming.

Hostages are seized, but six Americans slip away to -- not freedom -- but refuge.

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) shelters and hides them at his home. They are not among the 66 hostages who faced mock executions and multiple beatings, but they are imprisoned in Iran in their own way.

And this is where the CIA and Hollywood, both masters of disguises, sleight of hand and far-fetched schemes, improbably join forces to try to get them out of Tehran. Alive and unharmed.

CIA officer Tony Mendez (Mr. Affleck), stunned by the idiotic, impractical ideas from some colleagues, is inspired by his young son's fascination with movies such as "Battle for the Planet of the Apes." Mendez suggests having the six masquerade as Canadian citizens on a location scout for a science fantasy adventure, a sort of "Star Wars" knock-off.

It's "the best bad idea ... by far," and getting the go-ahead from the agency is only the first step.

Mendez enlists a real-life producer and makeup wizard -- played respectively by scene-stealing Alan Arkin and John Goodman -- in his plan. Still, he faces a series of hurdles almost as long as the Hollywood Walk of Fame and so treacherous that if he fails in his ruse, he and the other Americans will die. Badly.

Mr. Affleck, who nimbly made the leap to directing with "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," directs a screenplay by first-timer Chris Terrio. He based it on a selection from "The Master of Disguise" and the Wired article by Joshuah Bearman.

"Argo" feels both frighteningly topical given the recent deadly attacks in Libya and seriously dated given its 1979-80 backdrop.

It simmers with real tension as it leapfrogs among characters and locations as much as 7,500 miles apart. Mr. Affleck uses an old-fashioned ringing telephone as effectively as Alfred Hitchcock ever did, and he salts his cast with interesting actors such as Bryan Cranston as assistant deputy director of the CIA, and Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy as three of the American "houseguests."

The story juices the white-knuckle tension near the end, so if you're a stickler for knowing exactly how events transpired, look for "Argo," a new book written by the real Antonio Mendez with Matt Baglio.

Do sit through the credits to see the "Argo" aftermath, real news footage and how expertly the movie was cast. Mr. Affleck looks little like Mr. Mendez, but the director is allowed to make an exception for himself.

Forget that "South Park" ditty of "Blame Canada." This time, it's hooray for Hollywood, a commendation for the CIA and a chorus of "O Canada!" with its lyrics about being glorious, free and standing on guard for thee.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published October 12, 2012 4:00 AM


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