There's hardly a line more mundane than the one to get through airport security, and there are no cliffhangers where decades-old events are concerned. That is a long way of saying that Argo, a true and well-known tale set some 30 years ago that climaxes in an airport security line, has no business being one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen. That it is anyway is a monumental achievement and another bit of evidence that says that Ben Affleck -- yes, the dopey guy who starred in Reindeer Games and Pearl Harbor -- has become a directorial treasure while we weren't quite paying attention.
This is a rousing success on three levels. It is a heart-thumping, frog-in-your-throat thriller. It is legitimately funny. And it has plenty to say about the relationship between Iran and the United States, something which, to this day, should matter a great deal to every American.
The thrills and suspense come from the true story at the center of it all -- the efforts of the CIA to extricate six Americans stranded at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran for weeks after they manage to elude capture when Islamic militants storm the U.S. embassy during the throes of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his boss Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) hatch the hare-brained scheme to use a fake Canadian film crew on a location scout in Iran as the cover to get them out. Again, you know going in (or should) how this is going to end. Through some truly brilliant filmmaking, Argo still ends up boosting your pulse to unsafe rates for long stretches of the film.
The humor comes from Mendez's and O'Donnell's efforts to lend the cover an extra layer of credibility. To achieve this, they loop in John Chambers (John Goodman), a Hollywood makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer, to go through the motions of setting up a a fake movie studio and purchasing a quite real script that will give the entire operation authenticity.
The subtle commentary on the U.S.-Iran relationship comes from all of the pointed, immaculate details Affleck (the director) chose to include in the film. This is complex stuff to pull off. To do justice to the six Americans hiding out in a constant state of fear, you have to articulate the sheer menace of the Revolutionary Guard and the anger of the Iranian people toward the U.S. in 1979, something best conveyed during the Americans' trek to the Tehran bazaar when they must navigate through a crowd of zealous demonstrators and flee from an angry shopkeeper whose son was killed by the deposed Shah. Without this element, there is no urgency when they finally try to escape. Go too far in this direction, though, and you risk shameful demagoguery of the Iranian people. Affleck nimbly eliminates that potential with shots of Iranians eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, boorish Americans harassing Iranian immigrants halfway across the world, a cleverly placed sign proclaiming that Iran's quarrel is with the U.S. government and not with its people and, perhaps most pointedly, a dinner debate where the six stranded Americans actually empathize with the demand that the Shah be extradited.
I don't usually fall for craftsmanship when it comes to movies. I'm not a failed film student, and so that sort of thing generally doesn't do it for me. But it's hard not to notice and deeply appreciate the care taken with every little piece of Argo. The suspense and the comedy neutralize each other like an acid and a base -- the lovable Arkin and Goodman providing just enough comic relief ("Argo fuck yourself!") to the cut the at-times unbearable tension of Mendez shepherding his flock out of Tehran.
Those two ingredients alone would be enough to make Argo an exceptional film. The fact that I left the theater thinking about the fragile state of affairs between Iran and the U.S. that persists to this day -- thinking about where all the shared blame lies and what might be done to make things better, to give hope to this frayed relationship -- makes it one of the best movies I've seen in quite some time.