Spies and moviemakers are both masters of deception and disguise. In the quick-witted thriller "Argo," the two cultures join forces to concoct the unlikeliest subterfuge in the history of espionage.
Ben Affleck's third outing as a director is an impressive mix of serious suspense filmmaking and ironic, mood-lightening humor. And it has the added distinction of being mostly true, based on a declassified CIA operation.
When Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking 56 workers hostage, six U.S. staffers escaped, seeking refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. The film briskly establishes their predicament in sequences of energetic, you-are-there power. Scenes at CIA headquarters and in revolution-wracked Iran crackle with hard-edged intensity. There's little overt violence in the film, but the atmosphere is heavy with threat.
With no good plans for rescuing the six hidden Americans, the CIA chooses "the best bad option." "Exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) recruits a spy-friendly makeup master (real-life Oscar winner John Chambers, played with seen-it-all charm by John Goodman) to fabricate a Canadian sci-fi movie. After creating a persuasive history for the fake "Argo" project, Mendez hopes to sneak into Iran and bring back the refugees, posing as Canadian movie personnel scouting exotic locations.
But for the production to seem plausible in gossipy Hollywood, the lies would have to be plastered on carefully and deep. Soon the CIA is in cahoots with wily veteran producer Lester Siegel (played with magnificent, biting wit by Alan Arkin), whose disinformation skills would cross a KGB man's eyes. Through cocky bouts of one-upsmanship with rival producers and public script readings with actors in kitschy space costumes, he convinces the industry that "Argo" is a bona fide item, creating secrecy through publicity.
Comedic sequences aside, "Argo" is a tense film about a life-or-death diplomatic crisis, and Affleck ratchets up the tension mercilessly. Mendez prepares his wards for their deception by drilling them in their roles like a taskmaster director. Because their success depends in large part on staying cool and confident, he can't expose his own misgivings. Affleck underplays his role, virtually hiding behind his longish hair and beard. When he speaks up against a superior's misguided escape plot before a room full of State Department brass, he's like a sniper emerging from cover to fire a kill shot. It's one of "Argo's" many teasing ironies that this hero, happiest in shadows, has to play a Tinseltown hotshot to achieve his mission.
The film handles the political context of the hostage crisis intelligently, with a prologue that established why Iran's revolution flared, and how it then burned out of control. The mechanics of the getaway show the action-movie proficiency Affleck demonstrated in his bank heist film "The Town." Even though we know the outcome, he keeps us on edge, fretting that a locked door, a computer snafu or a bus with a balky gearbox might fatally delay the fugitives. The finale, a chase across an airport runway, is a riveting exercise in suspense editing. At a time when so many genre movies are mindless assaults on the eyes, ears and intelligence, such superior craftsmanship is a gift to be treasured.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 Follow me on Twitter: @colincovert