A great escape

Ben Affleck directs riveting hostage-rescue thriller

Stick to the script, get out of Iran alive.

Stick to the script, get out of Iran alive.

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Directed by Ben Affleck. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

In 1980, in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA agent organized an undercover caper that was desperate, dazzling and very improbable—“the best bad idea” the agency could come up with. In the hands of Ben Affleck and company, that little farrago (which was kept secret until the late 1990s) becomes a riveting, briskly entertaining thriller.

There is no shortage of peril and suspense in the basic incident—agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) is attempting to spirit six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy out of Iran. (The six are separate from the 52 Americans imprisoned in the besieged U.S. Embassy, but are in increasing danger of discovery.) And the tension is only heightened by the outlandishness of Mendez’s scheme—he and the six escapees will exit Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew.

That scheme adds a second, curiously complementary element to the story—Mendez must set up an actual production company as a supporting cover story for the film-crew disguise. The cover-story movie becomes a sci-fi epic called Argo which might be filmed in Iranian locations. And a couple of Mendez’s Hollywood contacts (engagingly played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman) set up a publicity campaign and a production office on a studio lot.

The movie angle adds a rich level of ironic comedy to Affleck’s own production, which thereby also becomes a dark, barbed comedy-drama about the business of making movies. (In an exchange between the characters played by Affleck and Goodman, the latter has a line about movie-directing being a job that even a rhesus monkey could quickly learn to do.)

The calm assurance with which that wisecrack is delivered is in part a sign of Affleck’s continued growth and mastery as a director. His previous efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were already very impressive in that respect, and here he’s clearly in charge of a smart, efficient, handsomely mounted venture into suspenseful entertainment.

Affleck’s own performance as Mendez, a resourceful trickster shadowed by his own resolute intensity, is nicely underplayed. That approach is right for the character and right for a movie that steers clear of conventional movie heroism and concentrates instead on a multitude of smaller dramas, replete with sudden reversals and split-second escapes, that occur among the various characters involved in the carrying out of Mendez’s scheme.

Chris Terrio’s script (adapted from a book by Mendez and an article in Wired) and William Goldenberg’s razor-sharp editing are key contributors to the film’s brilliant pacing. Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Goodman and Arkin all make strong and apposite impressions in key supporting roles, and the actors playing the six escapees (Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé) all make precise individualized impressions in the midst of fleeting circumstances.