“Argo” commences with a brief documentary montage, critically outlining the history of Western involvement in Persia up until the late 1970s. From then on, however, we’re left in no doubt as to who the bad guys are. Taking place as one brutal Iranian dictatorship is replaced by another, this is the story of a handful of U.S. government employees who escape from the Embassy in Teheran (thus avoiding the 444-day hostage crisis), taking refuge with their Canadian counterparts; stony-faced C.I.A. agent Antonio Mendez hatches a clever scheme to sneak them out of the country disguised as a Hollywood film crew.
Director Ben Affleck (with the help of screenwriter Chris Terrio) does a terrific job in fashioning a gripping thriller from what is essentially an anecdote, using plenty of nervy close-ups, and degrading the image to give the film a washed-out “1970s political-thriller” look. The performances are uniformly excellent, notably from Affleck, putting himself at the centre as the hero who must convince everyone of the viability of his plan whilst privately harbouring severe doubts; as well as a host of familiar and unfamiliar character actors – Brian Cranston scores highly as Mendez’s closest ally, as does Scoot McNairy as the most sceptical would-be evacuee; and John Goodman and Alan Arkin clearly enjoy themselves as the producers of the amusingly conceptualised “Star Wars” rip-off project which provides the cover story. The nail-biting, against-the-clock climax is straight out of the screenwriters’ handbook, but that is forgivable when it’s as slickly handled as it is here.
Apparently (inevitably) liberties have been taken in respect of fact, and the outcome is never really in doubt (otherwise the implications would have been massively historic). Nevertheless, “Argo” must go down as a triumph – commercial cinema at its cleverest and most relevant.