It may be hard to believe in our peaceful times, but back in 1979, the United States didn't get along so well with Iran, which seized 52 hostages from the American embassy in protest. They would have taken six more had they not escaped and holed up in the Canadian embassy until the CIA rescued them by masquerading as a movie production.
It's a story so outrageous and silly, not the least because it was known by such as stupid name as the Canadian Caper, that it would be laughed out of production meetings had it not actually happened and were it not backed by documents declassified in 1997. It was such a brazen, daredevil operation that it can only be dramatized by Daredevil himself.
Ben Affleck produces, directs and stars in a Ben Affleck production of a Ben Affleck film about Ben Affleck being Ben Affleck. Also, Affleck Affleck Affleck.
Affleck has come a hell of a long way since he pranced around as a blind superhero in red tights. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now this film, he's developed an untouchable resume as a filmmaker that's almost stunning enough to make everyone forgive him for starring in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Reindeer Games and Paycheck. Almost.
He plays CIA operative Tony Mendez, who concocts the idea to rescue the hidden hostages by dreaming up a movie so awful that Affleck would have starred in it 10 years ago. It's a sci-fi film called Argo about a planet that looks exactly like Iran. It's up to Mendez and the hostages to convince Iranian officials that the movie was commissioned by a Hollywood studio that dispatched six Canadian crew members that need to do some location scouting just as the hostage crisis is going on.
Affleck is good enough in the role to chase away rumors that he was only cast because he was sleeping with the director. The ever scarier-Bryan Cranston breaks good in playing a CIA boss who champions the caper amid a doubting home office. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the guys who have the easiest part of the mission — to stay home and answer an office phone in case dudes at the Iranian airport call to check out whether or not Argo is a real movie.
Affleck makes the movie resemble something made in the late 70s or early 80s, thanks to all the period detail, including feathered hair, sideburns, 'staches and giant collars. If it's tough to add suspense to a story that history dictates will turn out OK for the good guys, the movie doesn't show it. Certain doom seems to be waiting for the escapees at every turn, narrowly avoided by equal parts moxie, misdirection and luck. The intensity starts as a slow grind and continues to ratchet up until the end, when you've warped both armrests with nonstop squeezing from your trembling fingers.
There's only one significant flaw in the movie, but it is a major one. It's that A Flock of Seagull's "I Ran (So Far Away)" is not the theme song. If you can overlook that shortcoming, you'll likely be entranced by Argo. If you cannot overlook that shortcoming you will hate it and Affleck will have to deal with life without your approval.
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Taylor Schilling. Written by Chris Terrio. Directed by Affleck. 120 minutes. Rated R.