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Imagine what screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd must've been thinking when former CIA officer Tony Mendez released his book Master of Disguise in 1999. The memoir, which reveals details about a covert operation he led to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran in 1980, was a story Chetwynd thought he had already thoroughly adapted into the TV movie Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper one year after the mission ended. While Caper provided many stirring and historical facts about the incident, the most Hollywoodesque parts of it weren't even known until President Bill Clinton declassified the top-secret CIA files in 1997.
In Argo, his third film as a director, Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) takes the full, uncensored narrative and runs with it. First-time screenwriter Chris Terrio keeps the interaction and dialogue between characters moving briskly, but finds difficultly in building tension without glossing over the conflict.
After militants infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a plan was devised to rescue six diplomats who were able to escape the hostage situation and hide out in the home of a Canadian ambassador. What no one knew aside from those involved was this: Mendez's risky idea — and the reason a film like Argo is so unique on paper — was to smuggle the diplomats out of Iran by pretending they were all part of a filmmaking crew scouting locations for a kitschy sci-fi movie (in Caper, they attempt their escape as less intriguing grain exporters). Standouts in Argo include Oscar winner Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and John Goodman (The Artist) as two film industry pros operating a fake studio back home in Los Angeles.
What's so ironic about Argo is that it's a story about a faux film, but occasionally comes across just as deceptively as the movie-within-a-movie it's featuring. Some might consider certain scenes in the third act thrilling, but editing them in such a happenstance manner makes them crowd pleasing at best. Still, Affleck makes more good directorial choices than he does questionable ones, especially when he pays close attention to the details of the era. That, along with the timeliness of the subject matter (one can't watch without thinking of recently slain U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens), turns Argo into a solid political spy movie, despite being gift-wrapped a little too neatly.
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Dir. Ben Affleck; writ. Chris Terrio; feat. Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall (R)